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OPINION - A knock at your apartment door

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Knock knock... "Hello, were from the government, and we'd like to take a look around." If you rent an apartment in Wausau, that will be happening to you.

Wausau's new landlord licensing ordinance calls for all rental properties to be inspected every three years. That means a building inspector will be showing up at your apartment with the expectation of coming inside.

There's a privacy issue here. And the argument in favor of the inspections is weak. "It's for your own good," will be the response. After all, the city doesn't want anyone living in squalor. That doesn't wash. If a tenant doesn't think their apartment is well maintained, they're free to rent from someone else. And in Wausau, under a separate rent-abatement ordinance, they can file a complaint against their landlord and can potentially have part of their rent refunded if there are long-standing uncorrected problems. Wausau's rent-abatement law also says a tenant can't be retaliated against after complaining. If a landlord determines that a tenant is a hopeless slob, they can refuse to renew the lease or file a complaint with the health department.

There is also an equal protection problem with the city's inspection policy. Wausau's new ordinance sets up a two-class system. People who rent their homes are in one class. A government agent gets to enter and inspect their residence. But people who own their homes are in a separate class. They are exempt. (In fact, there's legal precedent for homeowners to refuse to allow government agents into their home. When the tax assessor knocks at a homeowner's door, the owner can refuse to let them inside for reassessment. The assessment is done from the curb. And there are many cases where a homeowner has made improvements, like that new bathroom in the basement that they didn't get a permit for, that the tax assessor will miss if they aren't allowed in.)

Before Wausau's ordinance, these types of inspections were generally handled under a lease. A rental agreement might include language that allows a landlord to enter at set periods of time, perhaps every six months, to inspect the property. There might also be language about whether the renter gets advance notice, and whether the tenant can be present during an inspection. And there are expectations in case of emergency flooding and fires for instance. This also doesn't apply for criminal activity, where the police can enter after going to court and getting a warrant.

The city has a reasonable goal: making sure the city's stock of rental properties are up to code. The city also has an obligation to use the least intrusive methods possible. They haven't. The ordinance could have been written to say un-rented apartments will be inspected before a tenant moves in.

A group of Wausau landlords are suing the city. I suspect they care more about the licensing fees than my privacy. But I still hope they win their case.

Chris Conley

Image:Coryell Court Apartments (1820 E Thomas, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington), the apartment building that was used as the main set for the 1992 Cameron Crowe film "Singles" by Eric Molinavia Wikicommons.com.