« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Rent abatement

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Wausau city leaders want to make an example out of David Raab. He’s a landlord, and at least one of his units is in disrepair. There are numerous code violations in the apartment that Jennifer Maerz rents. Sewage is leaking. Wires are exposed. Repairs haven’t been made.

The case of Raab vs. Maerz is the first to go through Wausau’s renters abatement program. Under the program, renters can bring their complaints against landlords, and the city gets to decide punishment – including a refunding of rent for particularly bad situations. In this case – the example for renters and the warning for bad landlords – Maerz got a 90% refund of one month’s rent. And for good measure, the city is taking the case before a municipal judge and is asking for $50,000 in fines for code violations. They’re willing to drop some of the fines if the landlord enters into an agreement to make immediate repairs.

The system is out-of-kilter.

Some truths: no one should live in squalor. Renters should have redress against slumlords.

But there are other inconvenient truths: the city has a rent abatement program because the city doesn’t have enough building inspectors, and has been very slow (or even negligent) in inspecting run-down rental properties.

And a final truth: a renter doesn’t get to live somewhere for free, or at a city-ordered discount, just because there are problems with their apartment.

The situation that Ms. Maerz lived in sounds horrible. Imagine the stench of backed-up sewage. Imagine the safety risks of exposed live-wires. She has every right to complain about those situations… first to the property owner, and then to the city. And shame of the landlord if repairs weren’t made promptly.

But Ms. Maerz did have a roof over her head last month. She had a place to come home to, and sleep, and eat. And suppose her rent is $500; she’d have nowhere to lay her head for $50. So despite poor living conditions, the city is arbitrarily giving her too much of a break. And, not knowing anything about Ms. Maerz, most people live in run-down and poorly maintained apartments because they’re bad renters. When a building is in disrepair, a starting point is to look at the people who’ve lived there. And the rent abatement system sends the message that bad renters can get discounts if they complain about their landlords.

If I were in the same situation – where promised repairs didn’t happen – I’d withhold my rent. I’d tell my landlord that I’m putting the rent, the full amount, into an escrow account. And I’ll release it to him when the place is fixed up. And then I’d go to city hall, complain to the inspector, and be insistent that they review the problem.

I’m not about to let the landlord off the hook. He should get a conditional fine for the full amount. $50,000 due and payable at City Hall, unless the repairs are made in two weeks. That’s a better alternative than the cockeyed system the city’s set up.

Chris Conley