Milwaukee regulators can force landlords to fix lead hazards, but only if they can find them

The Milwaukee Health Department faces lead enforcement challenges as the city's ranks of rental property owners who are based outside of Wisconsin grows.

Wisconsin Watch

September 27, 2023 • Southeast Region

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Deanna Branch looks to the side while posing for a portrait while sitting in a dark room.

Deanna Branch sits in the bedroom of a Milwaukee apartment her family were moving out of on July 1, 2023. Her son Aidan was sent to the hospital with severe lead poisoning linked to a previous apartment. The Milwaukee Health Department initially struggled to find the landlord responsible for removing those lead hazards. (Credit: Sara Stathas for Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch

By Farrah Anderson, Wisconsin Watch

This article was first published by Wisconsin Watch.

It was one landlord. And another. And another.

By the time Deanna Branch learned of severe lead hazards in her home several years ago, she wasn’t even sure who owned the North Side Milwaukee house she was renting.

When her son Aidan was sent to the hospital for the second time with severe lead poisoning, the Milwaukee Health Department initially struggled to find the landlord responsible for removing the hazards — a problem the department says it often encounters.

The city of Milwaukee may penalize landlords who don’t fix lead hazards in their properties, but only if they can track them down.

A growing share of Milwaukee property owners live outside of Wisconsin. And in properties where low-income renters live, ownership frequently changes, leaving tenants confused about who should be held accountable for any hazards.

In 2022, landlords outside of Wisconsin owned more than one in six Milwaukee rental homes.

Out-of-state investors are increasingly buying properties in Milwaukee’s Black-majority neighborhoods, according to a report by John Johnson, a research fellow in the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at Marquette University Law School.

Landlords outside of Wisconsin own 24% of rental properties in majority Black wards, a 9.3 percentage point leap since 2018, according to the report. Yet from 2018 through September 2022, the number of out-of-state-owned houses in majority white neighborhoods fell by nearly 100, the report said.

The Milwaukee Department of Health Services struggled to find Dennise Honegger’s landlord after tests showed her daughter and grandson were lead-poisoned. The department eventually tracked him down in California where he was difficult to reach, Honegger said. Some lead abatement happened at Honegger’s rental, but only sporadically as the landlord did not consistently pay contractors, she added.

State law does not limit how often landlords change their business names, and those that frequently change their limited liability companies are particularly hard to find, said Michael Mannan, the health department’s director of home environmental health.

“It makes it very hard to bring someone to court if they’re constantly changing their ownership,” Mannan said.

A single sandal sits on a wooden floor next to a corner of two walls with cracked and peeling layers of paint.

Lead poisoning of children has largely been tied to contact with old, peeling paint. This Milwaukee rental home was inspected for lead in 2015. Homeowners can make their properties safer by removing lead paint and other hazards. But renters, whose children disproportionately face lead poisoning, rely on landlords to take action. (Credit: Matt Campbell / Wisconsin Watch)

Allowing cities to set up and fund rental registry programs would help address this problem, Mannan said, but state laws that limit local power to regulate rental properties make doing so difficult.

“We’d know who the owner is, you’d have to renew every year. If you had code violations, you wouldn’t be allowed to rent your property,” Mannan said. “All that we’re allowed to do are Band-Aids.”

Mannan said his colleagues are lobbying lawmakers to require that agents submit additional information when registering an LLC — an “uphill climb” in the current landlord-friendly Legislature, he acknowledges.

Heiner Giese, an attorney and lobbyist for the Rental Property Association of Wisconsin, said he is not aware of landlords that are changing their business names to avoid enforcement.

Changing an LLC name still requires paying state fees and listing a registered agent, Giese said.

“There’s somewhat of a myth out there that landlords are hiding,” he said. “You’ve got to have some sort of live human being that’s connected with an LLC.”

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