01STOCK_JANESVILLE

JANESVILLE

City officials say the number of complaints against rental properties is fewer than the 2,383 complaints the city originally told The Gazette.

In the spring, The Gazette requested from the city a list of complaints against landlords from the beginning of 2016 through mid-April. The city sent The Gazette a list of 2,383 complaints.

City officials said Wednesday the list it provided was wrong. The city doesn’t separate complaints by owner- or tenant-occupied properties. The list sent to The Gazette included complaints against all properties, not just rentals, said Jennifer Petruzzello, neighborhood and community services director.

Petruzzello estimated rental properties account for at least 70 percent of the 2,383 complaints the city received in 2016. That equates to at least 1,668 complaints among the 2,383.

Petruzzello confirmed that 95 percent of complaints against property owners with at least three violations were against landlords. The more violations property owners had, the more likely they were to be landlords, Petruzzello said.

The city didn’t provide an exact number of complaints against landlords.

“To determine an overall number, staff would need to compare ownership information to the address of violation,” Petruzzello wrote in an email to The Gazette.

“This would be imperfect and require a high level of review because even owner-occupants may have a different address associated with the property.”

Petruzzello apologized for the miscommunication and providing information to The Gazette that didn’t match its request.

Petruzzello said she hopes the discrepancy doesn’t distract residents from the fact that the city had more than 1,600 landlord complaints since January 2016.

On top of that, many violations are never reported to the city. After moving out of rental properties, tenants sometimes report to the city that their landlords have told them to not report violations.

Tenants often comply out of fear of retaliation, Petruzzello said.

Nearly half of Janesville renters qualify as “housing cost burdened,” which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That makes it difficult for them to move and report housing violations if their landlords threaten to terminate their leases, Petruzzello wrote.

City Manager Mark Freitag said the landlord discussion has opened the city’s eyes to problems with the system staff uses to track chronic nuisances.

If a property gets an order to correct or if a tenant is arrested, that’s considered an “action.” Four actions in a year qualify a property as a chronic nuisance, and the city takes steps to meet with the landlord to come up with a plan to fix problems.

However, the record-keeping and data-tracking systems the city uses don’t automatically alert staff once a property reaches four actions in a year.

Often it’s a police officer or other city employee who notices a property might be a chronic nuisance. Staff members then have to manually check records to see if that’s true.

Freitag said he hopes there’s a better system available that can automatically alert staff if a property becomes a chronic nuisance so some landlords and nuisance properties don’t fall through the cracks.

Without peer city data to compare to Janesville, Freitag doesn’t know if Janesville has a landlord problem, but “I do think we have problem landlords,” he said.

The five citations the city has issued against problematic landlords since the beginning of 2016 are a result of violations that weren’t addressed, he said.

Once there’s a complaint, the city sends one of its two inspectors to investigate.

If there’s a violation, the inspector issues an order to correct, Freitag said.

The inspector then returns to the property to see if the violation has been fixed. If not, the property owner is charged a $100 reinspection fee and given more time to address the problem, he said.

If the violation still isn’t fixed by a second deadline, city staff will either fix the issue and charge the work to the owner’s property tax bill or issue a citation, Freitag said.

Dealing with so many violations can be a “hairy mess” and a lot of work for only two inspectors, Freitag said.

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