RACINE — The RENTS initiative was still included in the 2020 budget, which received city approval Tuesday despite objections voiced by landlords and a proposed amendment to remove it from the budget.
Monday’s meeting of the Committee of the Whole, a subcommittee that includes all City Council members, was to review and vote on proposed amendments to the proposed 2020 budget.
One of those amendments, put forward by 6th District Alderman Sandy Weidner, was to remove the RENTS initiative — which aims to help renters within the city — from the 2020 budget. Instead, Weidner proposed discussing and voting on the initiatives separate from the budget.
“This should be a standalone consideration,” said Weidner, who added she supported the ideas behind the initiative but was concerned with how it was being implemented. “Because we’ve done this before, where we changed some ordinance and had some buyer’s remorse.”
That amendment failed, 10-2, with Weidner and Alderman Carrie Glenn voting in support and Aldermen Jeff Coe, Mollie Jones, John Tate II, Jen Levie, Maurice Horton, Q.A. Shakoor II, Trevor Jung, Henry Perez, Natalia Taft and Melissa Lemke voting in opposition.
Before reviewing and voting on the proposed amendments on Monday, the council heard several public comments in favor of and against the proposed RENTS program, which includes:
- A landlord registry to ensure the city has the current property owner’s name and contact information for every rental property in the city.
- A searchable public database of all city properties so anyone can search a properties’ history including any code violations and whether the violations were addressed.
- Housing and environmental inspections of rental properties in targeted neighborhoods.
- Updating chronic nuisance codes to include code violations. Currently, nuisance ordinances focus on public safety issues.
- Establishing an escrow account for when landlords need to make repairs to bring their property up to code. Tenants would pay their rent into the account and the landlord would receive those funds once the repairs are completed.
- Stronger enforcement of ordinances barring retaliation against tenants for reporting code violations.
- Requirements that lenders pending foreclosure register with the city and maintain the upkeep of the property.
Supporters argued the proposed reforms would protect tenants from bad landlords who abuse the system. Since 2011, the Wisconsin state Legislature has passed a number of landlord-tenant laws that many experts argue tilt state law in favor of landlords.
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“The common comment we hear from tenants is that they feel powerless,” said Carmen Ayers, a staff attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin. “These ordinances which simply ensure that Racine landlords are following the law which would make a huge difference to (tenants’) quality of life.”
In addition to Legal Action, the council heard public comment from Racine Dominican Sisters, Racine Interfaith Coalition, Homelessness and Housing Alliance of Racine County. The council also received written endorsement of the proposal from Aurora Health Care, Health Care Network and Ascension All Saints, all of which pointed to the health effects of substandard housing.
Several landlords also spoke during the public comment segment expressing concerns that the initiative would make them vulnerable to being exploited by bad actors or place the responsibility for the actions of bad tenants on their shoulders.
John Frickensmith, president of the Southern Wisconsin Landlord’s Association, voiced quite a few concerns about “rogue inspectors,” landlords being forced to pay for damages caused by tenants, and that the initiative could raise rents and increase evictions.
“There are some things in here that are leaving tenants in a bad position depending on how the city acts,” Frickensmith said. “We want a better Racine. It’s in our benefit. It’s in everyone’s benefit.”
Frickensmith also said that the initiative violates state law. During discussion, Alderman Henry Perez asked City Attorney Scott Letteney what he thought of Frickensmith’s assertion.
“I disagree with that assessment,” Letteney said. “I think it is consistent with state law.”
Ultimately, the City Council voted to include the RENTS initiative in the budget, which passed Tuesday. City Attorney Scott Letteney said the ordinance to prevent retaliation against tenants who report landlords for violations is effective immediately.
Vicky Selkowe, the city’s manager of strategic initiatives and community partnerships, who was involved in drafting the initiative, said other aspects of the initiative should be implemented 90 days after approval, in approximately mid-February. City staff is to draft a plan for which neighborhoods would be selected for inspections, which Selkowe said will go through the approval process before implementation.