Milwaukee's Chronic Nuisance Ordinance and It's Improper Use Against Landlords
Posted by Tristan R. Pettit, Esq.
City of Milwaukee,
The City of Milwaukee's Chronic Nuisance Ordinance (80-10) is a thorn in the side of many landlords. Essentially the ordinance says that if your property generates more than 3 calls for police service for "nuisance activities" within a 30 day period that the city will charge you for the costs associated with abating the alleged nuisance.
Nuisance activities include the following: harassment, disorderly conduct, battery, indecent exposure, prostitution, littering, theft, possession, manufacture or delivery of drugs, gambling, illegal possession of firearms, keeping a dangerous animal, trespass to land, conspiracy to commit a crime, discharge of a firearm, excessive noise, loitering, public drinking, sale of liquor, possession of counterfeit items, possession or selling of drug paraphenalia, selling or giving tobacco products to children, misuse of emergency telephone numbers, harboring an animal that causes a disturbance, illegal use or sale of fireworks, and truancy. In summary, a nuisance activity is pretty much anything and everything you can think of.
If your rental property is being used as a drug house or is the headquarters for a gang or if you are allowing tenant to run a house of prostitution out of your apartment complex then I agree that your property is more than likely occupying more than its fair share of the police department's time and resources and that the property may be a chronic nuisance. But this is not the only -- nor is it the typical -- situation in which this ordinance is being used against landlords.
Oftentimes landlords are having fines added to their property tax bill or being contacted by the police becasue a tenant called 911 to report a legitimate crime, or because a neighbor (who is mad that they live next to an apartment complex) called the police because s/he doesn't like it when the tenants stand and talk in front of the building, or my all-time favorite, a person (not a tenant or the owner) walked by the rental property and decided to drop their hamburger wrapper on the lawn. All of the above instances qualify as nuisance activities under Milwaukee's ordinance and can result in a property being declared a chronic nuisance.
I have heard from many landlords -- both in my capacity as an attorney representing landlords and as the president of the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin (AASEW) -- about circumstances in which they have been contacted by the police as a result of examples similar to those mentioned above. I recently received an email from a new AASEW member who was very upset at being in such a situation and contacted the AASEW for assistance and guidance. I have reproduced the member's email, with his permission, ommitting his name and the property address to protect his identity.
I own a 30 unit building at __________________. Last December there were 2 family arguments in which police were called, and a misdialed 911 call. According to the City's Nuisance Ordinance, 3 or more nuisance calls in any 30 day period from a property puts the owner on a list for "supervision" from the district's community liaison officer for a full 12 months. The owner must submit a plan for abatement for acceptance by MPD, fully execute the plan in a timely manner, check for nuisance incidents monthly at MPD Public Records office, and then submit a report and action plan for abatement for each incident.
My plan was approved and executed. I do have continuing nuisance incidents occurring though, but so far only one was a repeat from the same tenant. She had called the police to report that her son was receiving death threats. If my son where receiving death threats, I'd call the police too, but the community liaison officer told me that that was considered a nuisance, and strongly implied that if I didn't deal with it, the property would be designated as a Chronic Nuisance. So, against my better judgment, I filed an eviction. Of course, I was laughed out of court. As any landlord will tell you, a failed eviction action usually means the situation will deteriorate. This is not good business, but the fact is I'm being strong-armed by MPD to act.
I have taken absolutely EVERY action I was directed to take, or suggested I take, by MPD and more. I have responded to nuisance reports in as heavy-handed ways I can muster, with warnings, fines, and 5 Day Notices, to try and satisfy MPD. However, I feel like I'm being railroaded, and no matter what I do MPD will designate it as a Chronic Nuisance.
Please understand that, while my building is by no means the "Ritz", it is also by no means a slum either. Nor am I a slum landlord. This is a nice building in which we have invested heavily, increasing the value, as well as the tax collections for the City of Milwaukee. We turned this building around from a bad property in 2003, with crappy tenants who avoided calling the police like the plague, to a rehabbed property with much better tenants with higher expectations and no qualms about calling the police to demand service (which I pay for).
My understanding is that this ordinance was originally enacted to give the City some ammunition against irresponsible landlords. I fear that MPD is using the ordinance to coerce landlords to enforce the law in their stead. I have asked MPD on several occasions, both verbally and in writing, to provide me with information regarding any citations given to people who are involved in the nuisance activity, and I have gotten none. The ordinance extends to 911 abuse. Why landlords are put in a position where they are required by MPD to enforce 911 abuse is a mystery to me. Why not fine AT&T - it's their line! The whole thing boils down to MPD's inability to enforce the laws, and the abdication of their enforcement responsibilities in favor of coercing landlords to do their job for them, under threat of fines. The whole thing is, in a word, insane. Even if a landlord is successful in eviction someone, the problem just goes somewhere else anyway.
The final insult to me is the fact that MPD's definition of "property" may be a single family home, or a 30 unit building like mine. I get the same 3 call limit per month for 30 families as a single family in a regular house. I pay 30 times more taxes than the single family owner, but I receive 1/30th of the service quota. In my opinion this is an impossible and patently unfair standard.
There are single family homes and condos next to some of my buildings where the tenants are involved in gun play, drugs and prostitution. I have lost tenants due to these neighboring activities. Alas, these are not nuisance properties because there are less than 3 calls per month regarding each property. I have a few family disputes and misdialed 911 calls each month from my 30 family building, and I'm the nuisance.
I thought that this individual's email was extremely well-written and clearly pointed out several of the problems with how the City is applying the Chronic Nuisance property against landlords, such as:
1. Regardless of the size of the property (whether it be a single family home or a 100 unit apartment complex) after 3 "nuisance activities" your property can be declared a chronic nuisance.
2. Many of the so-called nuisance activities are not activities for which a Milwaukee County Court Commissioner or Judge will evict a tenant for participating in. As this person stated, the writer indicaterd, when he tried to evict the tenant he was "laughed out of court." I have been involved in eviction trials where at the close of evidence, rather then evicting the tenant that was selling drugs out of my client's property, the Judger told the tenant that he really didin't need to have 20 people coming and going from his apartment between the hours of 11 pm and 3 am most nights of the week and that he should stop that activity as it wasn't fair to his neighbors. The Judge then denied my clients request for a judgment of eviction but rather scheduled the case for a staus conference in 60 days to see if things improved. If landlords cannot even get obvious drug dealers evicted how are they going to be able to have a tenant that littered, called 911, or made an excessive noise evicted?
3. Some of the 911 calls are legitimate calls for which the police should be called and the owner of that property should not be put in the position of having to choose between receiving a fine and having his/her property declared to be a nuisance or telling his tenants not to call 911 for real emergencies.
4. Oftentimes the property that is attributed with the call is not where the actual "nuisance activity" occurred. I heard of an instance where a woman had gotten into a fight with her boyfriend at her home and then fled, she then stopped at a nearby apartment complex and asked one of the tenant's if she could use her phone to call the police. Seeing that the lady was upset, the tenant allowed her to make the call. The lady called 911. As a result of the tenant being a helpful neighbor to the victim, the tenant's landlord was contacted by the police becasue the telephone call was considered to be an improper use of an emergency number.
I think the police and the Department of Neighborhood Services (which often gets involved in these situations) need to use some "common sense" and distinguish true nuisance activity from other activity rather than classifying everything as a nuisance.
I also think that it would also be helpful for the police and DNS to spend some time in eviction court and observe just how difficult it is to evict a tenant for anything other than failure to pay rent. Maybe after sitting in room 400 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse for an afternoon they will realize that they are living in an alternate universe if they think that a landlord can obtain an eviction judgment against a tenant who litters, improperly calls 911, makes loud noises, or loiters.
I have met with the new Commissioner of DNS, Art Dahlberg, along with other members of the AASEW board, and Mr. Dahlberg was also kind enough to speak at one of the AASEW's membership meetings. In speaking with the Commissioner, he has commented that he agrees that some common sense used when determining if something a a nuisance activity. It is my hope that the addition of some common sense will occur ASAP so that landlords like the one that emailed me above, are not being placed in such an unfair position.
If Milwaukee's Chrnoic Nuisance ordinance has been unfairly applied to you and your rental properties I would appreciate you providing me with the details by adding a comment to this post.