Inside Track: City Attorneys: Powerful Tools for Eradicating Problem Properties:

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  • City Attorneys: Powerful Tools for Eradicating Problem Properties

    The recession hit Milwaukee hard. With increased foreclosures and abandoned properties came increased havens for crime. Now, Milwaukee’s legal team is helping the city revitalize. Two city attorneys, featured speakers on “problem properties” at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting and Conference, discuss their legal strategies.

    Joe Forward

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    urban renewalApril 16, 2014 – Attorney Nick DeSiato is on the front lines of Milwaukee’s effort to deal with problem properties, both residential and commercial. And he’s pretty busy.

    Chief community prosecutor for the city attorney’s office, DeSiato works primarily with seven police districts, which send referrals his way seven days a week, at all hours of the night.

    The referrals ask DeSiato to assess the potential legal action necessary to eliminate or mitigate the source of criminal and other nuisance activity. Often, these sources are licensed taverns or restaurants, or vacant or abandoned properties.

    Once the call comes in, DeSiato makes connections with members of the community and other organizations that may be affected by a problem property in the area.

    “There’s often a correlation between nuisance activity and vacant structures, which serve as a place for things like dog fighting, drug use, and prostitution,” DeSiato said.

    “In this job, you really have to reach out and develop relationships with the neighbors,” he said. “Citizen testimony allows them to have their day in court, to speak out about a problem affecting their community. They are the ones who know what’s really going on.”

    Creative Solutions

    For instance, DeSiato continues to work a case involving a residential property in downtown Milwaukee. The homeowner, Daron Maye, was hosting late night, after-hour parties and charging money without a license. Some of the partygoers were underage.

    Neighbors continued to call police. Over a four-year period, police received more than 250 calls and issued nearly 20 citations. The city attorney’s office agreed to drop most of the charges if the parties stopped for two years, and Maye initially agreed.

    “Of course, the activities continued," said DeSiato, who went back to court in May 2012 to enforce the agreement, meaning the property would be shut down for 60 days and Maye would incur significant fines totalling nearly $90,000. But the homeowner seemed undeterred.

    In August 2012, Maye was throwing another illegal party when gunshots went off in the basement. Two men died. Police declared it a double-murder. Maye and his wife were arrested for obstructing justice. Shortly after, DeSiato helped obtain a criminal contempt order to send Maye to jail for 60 days, based on his defiance of court orders.

    “We also used the nuisance ordinance to the fullest extent,” DeSiato said. Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance requires a property owner to develop a plan to stop a repeated nuisance, if contacted by the police department to do so. If the homeowner does not respond or fails to carry out the plan, they must pay for future police services.

    “I encourage jurisdictions to have an ordinance like this, because it passes the buck to those who are responsible,” said DeSiato, who says the work often requires creative responses.

    But DeSiato is still fighting. In March 2014, he obtained a temporary injunction to stop the late-night parties. Earlier this month, he obtained a nine-month extension and will continue to fight for a permanent injunction to close the Maye party house for good.

    DeSiato will talk about this case and others as a featured speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC), June 26-27, at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, and he’s anxious to hear from other attorneys around the state.

    “These conferences provide an opportunity for lawyers to share their ideas,” he said. “There may be something others are doing that you hadn’t thought of, and vice versa.”

    DeSiato will team up with other city attorneys from Madison and Milwaukee, including Milwaukee Deputy City Attorney Danielle Bergner, to deliver two sessions on “Proactive Legal Strategies for Problem Properties,” a Government Lawyers Division program.

    The Big Picture

    DeSiato’s work is just one aspect of Milwaukee’s big picture effort to stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods through the Strong Neighborhoods Investment Plan.

    As part of the 2014 budget process, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced the $12 million initiative to help address the problem of foreclosed, vacant, and abandoned properties that breed crime throughout the city and plague neighborhood growth.

    Attorney Bergner oversees the “Neighborhood Revitalization Section” of the city attorney’s office, which encompasses nuisance abatement, community prosecution, abandoned and foreclosed properties, building and zoning enforcement, as well as programs to promote stronger neighborhoods.

    Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley recruited Bergner to help the city deal with the legal issues involved with problem properties, especially the real estate issues.

    “At the heart of all this is a real estate problem,” said Bergner, who rejoined the city attorney’s office to head the division after working on complex real estate and finance transactions at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. “This year and looking forward to the next three to five years, we will certainly make some real gains. It’s very exciting.”

    Legal Strategy

    Bergner said the city owns roughly 1,300 improved properties, about 2,700 vacant lots, and expects to take title to hundreds of additional properties this year. Some 500 properties need to be demolished, and Bergner’s division is helping to develop the legal strategies.

    “Our office has been integral in helping the city launch new programs to facilitate the disposition of city-owned real estate,” said Bergner, who helps coordinate the efforts.

    Her legal team meets with community groups, nonprofit partners, city agencies, and other stakeholders to identify and develop plans for revitalization. Community engagement efforts also include grassroots strategies to improve housing stock.

    “Maybe there are one or two properties on the block that continue to be a problem,” Bergner said. “Maybe they are forestalled bank or tax delinquent foreclosures. We can sit down with neighborhood stakeholders and talk about the legal strategies that might be available to the neighborhood to get these properties back in productive use.”

    Bergner spends time with attorneys on her team, developing the appropriate legal strategy for each problem property. While DeSiato handles community prosecution, other lawyers tackle building and zoning code issues, or bankruptcies and foreclosures.

    Joe Forwardorg jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    “This is a very different model of engagement for the city attorney’s office,” Bergner said. “And there is no question that it has and will continue to produce better outcomes.”

    Bergner said attorneys who attend the AMC program will learn about new ideas and strategies to employ when dealing with a wide range of problem properties, especially the problems that arise from widespread foreclosure and abandonments.

    “The scale of our problem is certainly quite large,” said Bergner. “However, these problems have affected smaller communities in very meaningful ways as well.”

    “The fact is, foreclosures and vacant and abandoned homes produce blighting influences wherever they exist. It’s not just depressed property values, it's crime. A lot of communities around the state, big and small, have been affected by this.”

    Bergner says Milwaukee is viewed as a national leader in revitalization efforts and closely follows the initiatives employed by other cities throughout the country. Lawyers who attend this program, she says, will learn about the legal tools they are using.