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Wausau's first rent abatement hearing rules in favor of tenant


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) -- The city of Wausau is managing their first case under the new rent abatement ordinance. The ordinance gives renters an opportunity to challenge landlords for substandard living conditions or hazards.

The city’s Public Health and Safety Committee decides if the evidence is strong enough to allow tenants to not pay up to 95% of their rent until the problems are resolved.

Committee member and Council President Lisa Rasmussen says this is the precedent for the rest of the city's hearings on abatement.  "Now that we've had this first judgement, I hope that tenants in this situation where situations are decaying, landlords are not responding, inspections has been out, I hope they tend to use this mechanism, so that they too can have a voice and have some recourse where they can't get action."

She says that this should be a message to landlords in the city.  "We also want landlords to recognize that we are really serious in our enforcement of this and action will be taken.  It's not fair to let people live in some of this stuff.  And fair is fair.  Being a landlord is a business and they really just need to be responsible about how they conduct that business."

Rasmussen says the process is much like other hearings the committee handles.  "We listened to testimony from all sides involved, the tenant, the landlord and the inspectors who inspected the property. We deliberate, we take a look at all the facts, and then we achieve a balanced result."  She says landlords are not going to get brought to hearing for minor issues with their properties.  "We kept it to the most serious things that are affecting a person's use of the apartment or its safety. And those are the conditions that are really critical that we want to see addressed. So we're hoping that use of this ordinance by tenants will create some actions on the part of landlords who know that they have conditions that they need to get at."

Alderman Bill Nagle says the rent abatement ordinance is important to protect people and property. “Property values are important. Public health and safety regulations are important, and whether it’s the owner-landlord, or an owner-occupant, whatever the case is, these codes must be enforced. Forfeitures must be paid for egregious violations if there’s knowledge, especially if there’s knowledge, and in tenant situations those rebates should be given to tenants.”

Community Development Director Ann Werth says this first hearing under the rent abatement ordinance shows that the process works.  “There was testimony from the renter and from the landlord, and from the inspectors on the job. The committee made their finding, and she has been awarded 90-percent.”

The committee granted Jennifer Maerz a 90-percent reduction in 30 days worth of rent after determining that her landlord failed to fix serious issues with her apartment.  Maertz told the committee that her landlord David Raab failed to repair a sewage leak in her bathroom and a dangerous electrical outlet in her basement for a month.

City council president Lisa Rasmussen says this is the first test for the ordinance, and that tenants shouldn't feel pressured by their landlords to live in unhealthy conditions.

(Listen to our interviews with Bill Nagle and Ann Werth on our website.  Click the links on their names.)