Illustration composed of photos taken by Steven Puetzer/Getty Images
The city of Milwaukee isn’t easy on scofflaw landlords. Those who defy enough building codes land on a “Special Enforcement” list maintained by the Department of Neighborhood Services, a “most-wanted” roster that gets its own platoon of 13 inspectors. Each wields a municipal microscope, searching for leaky roofs, unevenly poured front steps and faulty smoke detectors.
At worst, landlords and other landowners end up in Municipal Court, where they’re formally convicted of their violations and potentially fined thousands of dollars. According to the court’s records, the top four offenders accounted for 122 such cases between October 2010 and October 2012.
We checked into each defendant, what they own and where they ran afoul of city officials, for whom they didn’t always have the kindest words. (Go figure.)
In response, DNS Commissioner Art Dahlberg was more reserved. He said neglected properties tend to remain “out of sight, out of mind” until inspectors come a-knocking and offer a polite reminder.
They issued about 70,852 repair orders between June 2011 and June 2012, an average of almost 200 a day (including weekends). Dahlberg says frequent targets include foreclosures and abandoned properties, where wintry elements can quickly batter a structure into noncompliance.
Fourth Property Development LLC
When the Great Recession hit, Elijah Mohammad Rashaed and his partners (a consortium of more than 100 African-American landlords, he says) saw an opportunity. Operating under a number of corporate entities, including Fourth Property Development, they scooped up some 40 foreclosed homes in Milwaukee’s inner city in a blitz of property procurement.
“We were a little overzealous,” admits Rashaed, who says he had owned properties for years without any major housing violations. But the new ones were riddled with problems, and the city eventually took him to court. He accuses DNS of hounding him for fines to fatten the city’s coffers. “It was a sham and a shame,” he says.
Much of the company’s time in court came in 2009 and 2010, when repair orders ranged from replacing a roof to updating a gravel driveway that he says had “been on the property for a decade.”
Does the city come down too hard on habitual offenders? “It’s not a matter of harder or gentler,” Dahlberg says. “It’s a matter of focus.”
Will J. Sherard
Will J. Sherard, who refers to the Department of Neighborhood Services as “those wicked stepsisters,” owns about 75 properties in Milwaukee and maintains a small office on Capitol Drive. A licensed real estate agent since 1966, his troubles with building code violations began about 20 years ago, he says, when an alderman dubbed him one of the city’s “Dirty Dozen” landlords.
Recent violations include missing address numbers, holes in one house’s roof and a damaged screen door at another.
Sherard plans to retire in 2013 and pay down his remaining fines in monthly installments of $1,500, he says. “In the end, the only way Cinderella got to the ball was to make some miracle happen.”
John J. Stoss
A former Milwaukee arborist, John J. Stoss saw his relationship with the city sour in November 2011, when a municipal judge hit him with about $150,000 in fines related to a property he owned near North 50th and West State streets, where he’d built a massive retaining wall. Stoss was ordered to repair, replace or remove the structure, which stood 6 feet high and spanned 240 feet.
Attempts to reach Stoss were unsuccessful. Jack Kahl – assistant vice president of real estate disposition at WaterStone Bank (which is foreclosing on a property Stoss owns on West Wisconsin Avenue) – says no one from the bank has heard from Stoss “in quite some time.”
James D. Overland
A specialist in selling foreclosed properties, James D. Overland’s professional history includes running Overland Realty Co. on Milwaukee’s South Side. Cases stemmed from problems with plumbing and general maintenance. He didn’t return calls seeking comment.