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Milwaukee Shames Landlords into Repairs - 2003-01-02

Centuries ago, in America's colonial days, lawbreakers were often subjected to public humiliation as punishment. Today, public humiliation is back in some U.S. communities as a way to shame landlords into fixing their rundown properties. The tactics of landlord shaming include listing property owners' names on websites and posting signs outside houses that need major repairs.

The city of Milwaukee recently joined the short list of communities that try to shame problem landlords. City officials called the news media to a dilapidated duplex in a low-income neighborhood. And with television cameras rolling, a city crew put up a one by 2.5 meter sign in the front yard. It stated the owner's name and the fact that the building has outstanding code violations. The tactic worked. Just a few days later, the city crew was back to take down the sign.

This yellow and brown three story home is owned by a couple who live 40 kilometers away in a wealthy Milwaukee suburb. After being contacted by the media and some irate citizens, the couple paid for a permit to begin repairs on the condemned property and the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services agreed to remove the shaming sign. Department Commissioner Martin Collins says he thinks the city did the right thing.

"We had taken him to municipal court. We had prosecuted him," he said. "We had tried just about everything else we could do to get him to make repairs and he wasn't moving on it, and so we issued an order that said, either repair it or we'll put up this sign. Now under this code, we have the alternative of tearing the building down, too. We don't want to tear the building down. It's going to be a good asset to the community. Thus the effort to motivate him through the sign. He was clearly motivated." Some neighbors of the targeted property seem pleased by the city's action. Homeowner Ms. Bearden says absentee landlords often neglect properties in this neighborhood.

"And with the owners not living on site or in another city. They can obviously ignore what's going on. So I think the shaming technique is going to help," she said.

Ms. Beerden says she'd only be concerned about shaming if city officials start to overdo it. For example, she says, if Milwaukee singled out a house that just needed a paint job.

But some apartment owners already think cities go too far when they try to shame landlords. Jane Garvey, a Chicago landlord and vice-president of the Rental Property Owners Association in neighboring Illinois, has studied some of the shaming ordinances around the United States, and says the tactics can backfire, discouraging investment in urban neighborhoods.

"If I owned a property in this area, either an owner-occupant or a landlord nearby," she said, "calling the media and everybody else's attention to the fact there's a rundown property in my neighborhood is casting aspersions on that neighborhood."

Ms. Garvey says there are any number of reasons that landlords get in trouble over a property. Sometimes tenants do major damage or refuse to pay rent for months at a time. And sometimes, as fines for code violations mount, landlords feel fixing the property just isn't worth the trouble. While those concerns may discourage some cities from shaming landlords, Milwaukee officials insist it's a tactic that works. They're looking to put up huge signs at more properties in need of repair.