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Housing code revisions aim to improve rental properties in Eau Claire

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Rachyl Houterman

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Inspection program and rental registry are new additions to City housing code

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Housing code, city council, City-County Health Department.

Housing code, city council, City-County Health Department.

Kendall Ruchti

Kendall Ruchti

Housing code, city council, City-County Health Department.

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Mold, asbestos and bats are all things that UW-Eau Claire students have encountered when living off campus. But revisions to the city housing code aim to improve living conditions in rentals around Eau Claire.

On April 25, the Eau Claire City Council unanimously approved revisions to the city housing code, which include a new inspection program, a rental registration and stronger language to prevent retaliatory behavior from landlords when complaints from tenants are filed.

“This is a great first step,” said Nick Webber, UW-Eau Claire student body vice president. “I think this really sets up very nicely a lot of opportunities to improve the safety of housing and rental properties that affect our students.”

The inspection program is a criteria system in which properties will be subject to inspections based on how much of the criteria they meet. Two of the five criterion include number of complaints filed against a property owner and any identified external housing defects.

The inspection program prioritizes “high -risk houses,” Webber said. Students live in danger of not having a place to live because they fear retaliatory behavior from landlords if they file a complaint, he added, but the new inspection program will make it so complaints aren’t the only factor warranting a property inspection.

Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations at UW-Eau Claire, said the city is moving toward a “point system” inspection program and away from a complaint-based inspection program.

“Students can still file a complaint with the City-County Health Department or with the city,” Rindo said, “but this will ensure that if the criteria are met that there would be an inspection that would be triggered.”

The revisions are a big improvement for students living off campus and community members alike, Rindo said.

A shortage of on-campus housing has long been an issue for students at UW-Eau Claire, he said, which is a contributing factor to issues students have with off-campus housing.

“We think this is a major step forward,” Rindo said. “It certainly is an improvement over the status quo, and we’re going to see if it operates the way we anticipate it operates and has the desired results.”

Matt McHugh, owner of Clearwater Real Estate Enterprises LLC, said he believes the inspection program will improve the reputations of landlords in the Eau Claire area and help those who have been responsible in managing their properties.

“I just hope that they can somehow standardize it and make it somewhat fair and consistent,” McHugh said. “In doing that, that will help us as landlords understand what it is that they’re keying on and what we need to prioritize if we’re not already doing so, as far as our efforts on our properties.”

Another addition to the city housing code is the rental registry. This would require landlords and property owners to register their names, addresses and telephone numbers for each property they own or manage. Landlords will have to pay an annual $5 fee for each property they own. This way, Rindo said, students will be able to contact whomever is responsible for the rental they live in.

McHugh said he’d like to see the rental registry be accessible across all city departments so that in the case of an emergency, the property owner or landlord can be contacted.

“If they do indeed have the registration process,” McHugh said, “I hope that the city will invest into a database that is going to be able to be shared through all the different and various departments throughout the city so that they actually have a system that is beneficial for the whole city and also for the nature of all the property owners.”

Shane Sanderson, the environmental health director for the Eau Claire City Health Department, said the health department expects to receive between 800 to 1,300 complaints each year.

“We’re actually hoping that number goes down if we’re doing more health department-initiated inspections,” Sanderson said.

Doug Hoffer, Eau Claire Assistant City Attorney, said having an incentive-based program will ensure the city isn’t wasting its resources on inspecting properties that are in good condition. Likewise, it will also ensure responsible property owners aren’t being inspected unnecessarily.

“Maybe (complaints) go up first, initially, as we’re creating more awareness and people become more comfortable complaining,” Hoffer said, “but then as more problems are solved, there’ll be less.”

Strengthened language surrounding the concern of retaliatory behavior from landlords after a tenant complaint was also put in place. Evictions, inconsistent rent payment increases, failure to perform repairs and harassment of a tenant or refusal to renew a lease are considered retaliatory behaviors under the revisions.

If the actions occur within six months of the complaint being filed locally or nationally, it is subject to be considered retaliatory behavior. The landlord must present sufficient evidence to prove the supposed retaliatory acts are justifiable and aren’t in fact retaliatory.

Sanderson said he hopes this makes it easier for students to submit complaints. If there is still uncertainty, students are able to submit complaints anonymously and can even file a complaint on behalf of a friend anonymously.

“If you’re afraid for whatever reason to file the complaint while you’re living there,” Hoffer said, “while you’re leaving, give us a call so we can protect the next tenants.”

Brianne Hopkins, a sophomore political science student, said she believes the inspection program is a good idea to ensure the safety of students living off campus.

“I think that it would be good because I’ve heard a lot of people talk about off-campus housing,” Hopkins said. “They have mice problems and stuff like that, but they don’t call their landlords to take care of it, so I think it could be beneficial.”

Using “safe and accommodating housing,” Webber said, is something UW-Eau Claire could use to persuade potential students to come here.

“We would hate to see a potential student that wants to come here and having that unsafe housing be a dealbreaker when it comes to choosing Eau Claire over another school,” Webber said.

Housing code revisions will go into effect January 1, 2018.

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The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.
Housing code revisions aim to improve rental properties in Eau Claire