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OPINION - More problems with landlord licensing

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  For the last two years, I’ve been a renter. I rent the upper floor of a two family home on Wausau’s east side. It’s not fancy, but it’s nice. The landlord made some improvements before I moved in… new carpeting, new wood molding, etc.  I have a good relationship with my landlord; they consider me a good renter. As best I know, there are no code violations at my home.

And now I have new concerns with Wausau’s landlord licensing program, which was approved by the City Council last month. I believe the ordinance conflicts with state and federal law.

One of the ordinance’s goals is to register and inspect all properties that are offered for-rent in the city. That means, at some point, a city inspector will knock on my door and will want to look around. I may not let them in.

Such a visit is unconstitutional invasion of privacy. If a government agent wants to come into my home they need probable cause and a warrant. And there is no probable cause of any problems or issues surrounding my apartment. Even if a landlord wanted their property inspected, most leases and state law give specific circumstances about when a landlord can and can’t enter a rented home. A landlord is allowed to enter to address immediate health and safety problems (a burst pipe, a fire, etc). These city inspections aren’t covered under those circumstances. It also puts the landlord in the middle of a legal mess. Suppose a tenant who doesn’t want a government inspection sues the landlord who lets the inspector in anyway?

The law also establishes renters as second class citizens. Their apartments are subject to a government look-see, but people who own their own homes aren’t. That’s an equal-protection violation.

The city has a legitimate goal: to clean up substandard rental properties. But they’ve gone about it the wrong way. The city has skimped on building inspectors for years. There’s a backlog of complaints which the city doesn’t have the manpower to get to. The solution is to hire two new inspectors. (The cost of certain highway-median bird-themed art could have paid for the salaries, with some left over.) Then start a PR campaign, first encouraging renters to work with their landlords to resolve problems. And then, if it’s not fixed, renters should be told to file a complaint with the city. You can’t be evicted for reporting a legitimate violation. And then the city should voluntarily scale back this inspection program to cover only vacant apartments before they are re-rented. The city has more than enough tools at its disposal to make sure the rental-stock is safe. It’s frustrating that the city wants to be like a nosey-neighbor instead, with a plan that may not withstand legal scrutiny.

Chris Conley

Image:  By Photos public domain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common ('For Rent sign')