In the first month of its rental inspection program, the city of Oshkosh completed nine interior reviews and turned up 55 violations, ranging from the sort-of silly, like squirrels making themselves at home, to the deadly serious, like nonfunctional smoke detectors and problems with emergency exits.
Allen Davis, the city’s director of community development, said the most serious violations that the city has found were associated with exits from third-floor units, staircases (such as inadequate guardrails and stair treads), electricity and heat, and entry or exit door security.
The rate of six violations per address inspected is an indicator of the seriousness of the problems with rental housing in at least some parts of the city. Landlords have pushed back against this view and produced their own analysis, which showed that numerous housing code violations can also be found at owner-occupied units.
“The city claimed to have created the ordinance in response to a significant percentage of violations in rental units causing blight and reduced property values,” the Winnebago Apartment Association said in a statement. “However, the data seems to suggest that owner occupied units are creating just as much adverse problems in neighborhoods.”
This comparison is hard to make, however, since the landlords based their study on dwelling units while the the city focuses on addresses. Since an apartment structure at a given address would contain multiple dwelling units, it is likely that a comparison on a building by building basis would yield a much larger number of violations per property used for rental income compared to those that are owner-occupied homes.
Donn Lord, the president of the apartment owners group, said he had heard anecdotally that many of the violations found were “minor stuff.” He said the members of his organization were committed to improving the quality of local housing but remain strongly opposed to the inspection program.
The inspection program began in late February, Davis said, with tenant notices mailed on Feb. 20 and the first voluntary interior inspection completed Feb. 23. As of March 22, roughly a month later, 3,584 residential dwellings were in the city’s rental registry.
“An estimate of the compliance rate of rental dwelling owners who registered their properties with the city’s rental registry would be around 90 percent,” Davis said.
Other violations that inspectors found include improper electrical fixtures, cross connection issues between storm sewers and sanitary sewers, missing window screens and improperly vented water heaters.
The fact that city housing inspectors have found a sizable number of code violations is no real surprise given that another branch of city government, the Oshkosh Fire Department, has conducted structure inspections for years and typically finds a fairly large number of problems.
In 2016, for example, the Fire Department inspected 3,102 structures and found 800 violations. The fire inspections are limited to commercial and industrial buildings and the common areas of larger multifamily residences.
The department can write tickets for fire hazards but tries to avoid doing so. “That’s an absolute last resort,” said Chief Timothy Franz. The goal is to encourage voluntary compliance, he said.
Rental properties are a particular concern, he said, in part because of the city’s demographics. “Certainly we have poorer folks here than a lot of other cities,” Franz said. “That’s a vulnerable population of people, and they are usually in rental properties.”
Local and national statistics point to greater risks of fires in rental properties, he said.
The department has a long-running program of voluntary inspections for smoke detectors that targets a different neighborhood each year. Statistics show that missing or disabled detectors are fairly common. Last year for example in the north central part of the city the department found that 47 percent of the homes inspected needed to have smoke detectors installed.
The rental inspection program has become a critical issue is this year’s municipal elections, and some landlords have accused the city of unfairly targeting them as a way of boosting revenue. But other observers say that the problems with the city’s housing stock are real and have a spillover effect into other areas, including education.
While it’s impossible to tie poor educational outcomes directly to housing code violations, local educators are acutely aware of the precarious living conditions of many Oshkosh students.
“We have at any given time that we served during the past year 243 children who are homeless,” said Stan F. Mack II, the superintendent of the Oshkosh Area School District. Beyond those who are actually staying in shelters, “there is a sizable portion of our students who are living on the edge.”
He said that more than 40 percent of the district’s 10,000 or so students are considered impoverished by federal standards.
“I’m sure that there is a lot of high-quality housing in the area,” he added. “But the whole issue of instability of housing does impact children being prepared the next day for school.”
Photo: Rental units north of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus. Copyright 2017 Miles Maguire.