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  • Inside Track
    July 01, 2009

    House rules: Landlords knowledgeable of tenancy laws improves condition of rental properties, neighborhoods

    Tristan Pettit, an attorney representing landlords in evictions and other legal disputes, explained the circumstances his clients face to government lawyers stepping up enforcement of nuisance ordinances and building codes. Pettit's remarks were featured at the Government Lawyers Division presentation during the State Bar Annual Convention.

    July 1, 2009 – Most landlords are not slumlords, but many do not know the law well enough to keep order among their tenants, according to an attorney representing landlords in evictions and other legal disputes.

    For Rent“I kind of treat the landlord-tenant relationship somewhat as like a parent-child relationship,” said Tristan Pettit, of Petrie & Stocking S.C., Milwaukee. “Maybe that’s a little jaded, but you need to teach the tenants what is expected of them, and you do that by being organized and knowing the law and presenting yourself accordingly. If you don’t understand the law yourself, you’re not going to be able to do that.”

    Pettit explained the situation landlords face on May 7 during the Government Lawyers Division presentation on prosecutors’ efforts at neighborhood nuisance abatement. Pettit said he hoped that the attorneys contacting landlords about disruptive tenants will understand that landlords usually want to be cooperative, but they face certain challenges.

    Even when landlords educate themselves on the law, Pettit said that the courtroom can be a difficult place for them. Pettit said that state laws afford tenants a great deal of protection and courts may choose to err on the side of the tenant when applying the statutes.

    “In 13 year of doing this, I can tell you I have won very few evictions that have been for something other than non-payment of rent,” Pettit said.

    An ounce of prevention

    Preventing a bad situation with a tenant from arising is critical “because often times, once you have it, it’s very difficult to get rid of,” said Pettit.

    “Screening and qualifying the applicant is the single most important part of landlord-tenant law,” Pettit said. While this might not solve all of a landlord’s problems, it can improve the chances of staying out of court, he said.

    At the outset, Pettit said a landlord needs to verify who the applicant is and do some preliminary investigation. Referring to his own experiences as a landlord, Pettit said he used to show rental properties without doing any initial background checks.

    “Then I would do a background check afterwards and I would find out, ‘Oh, that person was convicted of armed robbery and his girlfriend has 10 money judgments against her and owes over $12,000. What the hell was I doing even letting them in my house? They obviously aren’t going to meet my screening criteria,” Pettit said.

    Request a valid Wisconsin ID or driver’s license for each applicant to make sure the face and listed addresses match up, Pettit said. Ask for a utility bill or another bill to verify current address and name, he said. A birth date and social security number will assist with background checks on CCAP, as will any other names the applicant may have used in the past, Pettit said.

    Pettit stressed the importance of checking out each adult who may occupy the property, not just the applicant.

    “I’ve had numerous situations where its very clear that it probably would’ve turned into a drug-type situation where the girlfriend is coming, filling out all the applications, and the boyfriend is just waiting there,” Pettit said.

    After he shows both the girlfriend and the boyfriend all the paperwork they have to complete, Pettit said, “They go, ‘Oh, can we have a minute?’ They go in the backroom, they talk, they give me everything back and they walk away.”

    Written screens  

    “Have written screening criteria and apply it consistently,” Pettit continued, explaining that setting forth the minimum requirements for tenancy will protect the landlord against allegations of housing discrimination as well as let the tenant know what is expected.

    Screening criteria must be objective, Pettit added. He also warned against making exceptions for applicants a landlord might “feel sorry for” or believes “had a bum rap.” Once an exception is made to the written criteria, the landlord loses its protection, he said.

    A landlord cannot discriminate against protected classes designated by federal, state, or local housing laws, Pettit said. In Wisconsin, these classes include race, sex, family or marital status, handicap, sexual orientation, lawful source of income, age, religion, and ancestry.

    But acceptable reasons to reject an applicant include smoking, pets, insufficient income, a poor rental history or lack thereof, an incomplete or falsified application, and a short work history. In most of the state, Pettit said, a landlord can also refuse to rent to those with criminal histories.

    Pettit acknowledged that a landlord’s financial circumstances can make it hard to turn down an applicant. But he stressed the importance of weighing the expense of removing a tenant and repairing a damaged property against the income of an occupied unit.

    Periodic inspections 

    A tenant has exclusive possession of a rental property, but with exceptions, Pettit said.

    The Wisconsin Administrative Code allows a landlord who gives 12 hours notice the authority to enter a tenant’s unit to inspect the premises, make repairs, and show the unit to prospective tenants or purchasers. Pettit said inspections are an important tool for landlords to guard against nuisance activities before they start.

    Some tenants may resist an inspection, so Pettit suggested including a financial penalty clause in the lease agreement for exclusion of a landlord attempting a lawful visit.

    It takes a village 

    “Establish a good relationship with the neighbors,” Pettit said. “Especially if [the property] is not owner-occupied, talk to them. They are going to be your greatest asset, calling when they see problems going on.”

    Pettit commented that a landlord should also take the time to explain to neighbors the limits of what can be done about troublesome tenants under the law.

    “Explain that if there are violations going on, I’m going to need your help,” Pettit said. “You call and report and tell me you think drug dealing is going on, I need you to testify if it’s not bad enough to get the police involved.

    “Maybe they won’t want to do that, but it helps them realize the landlord is kind of between a rock and a hard place,” Pettit said. “[The landlord] can’t just automatically evict someone because there’re suspected drug dealings going on.”

    Alex De Grand is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.




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