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Our View: Let cities decide their own landlord rules

1:51 PM, May 9, 2013  |  Comments
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A proposal in Madison that would strip tenants of rights and allow landlords to tow their cars, seize their property and more is an effort to impose a uniform set of landlord-tenant policies on the state. It's also, clearly, a move to increase the power landlords have to deal with problem tenants.

The problem is that in doing so, the bill would not only risk compromising tenants' rights, it would also interfere with the ability of individual municipalities to set policy.

It would impose a one-size-fits-all solution where it makes sense to allow different cities to take different approaches.

The proposal caught the attention of Wausau officials because the city recently has passed a fairly ambitious - or if you ask some landlords, harsh and punitive - set of policies aimed at cleaning up blighted parts of the city.

Maybe those Wausau policies will work and maybe they won't. Our overall view has been that basically, landlords should be held accountable for expectations such as avoiding code violations and providing safe living conditions - but that at times in public discussions rental properties can serve as a scapegoat for broader and more systemic neighborhood problems. In other words, we'd like to see Wausau's slate of policies have a chance to work - and be revisited and revised if needed.

But different cities will have different housing needs and different approaches to solving the problem. Consider the different positions of landlords in a college town, a Northwoods community and in the city of Milwaukee. They're each very different and the law should allow for a spectrum of policies.

A particularly troubling provision in the proposed law would let landlords off the hook from disclosing problems with their buildings unless the defects were identified by a building inspector. It's hard to see how that would be an improvement on the status quo in any municipality.

According to Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen, the bill could undo some of the city's program to fight blight. There probably are benefits to having uniform state laws around landlords and tenants. But in this case the costs seem clearly to outweigh them.

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