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Officials in Wassau, Wisconsin plan to notify tenants that they may qualify for a rent abatement.

The city’s Housing Code Enforcement Task Force suggested the rule as an alternative to the traditional licensing and inspection process that is popular in a number of cities.

The plan is based on a similar ordinance in Madison.

It appears the abatement plan can work two ways: if a property has been reported for building code violations, the tenant will be notified that they have the right to seek an abatement. Alternatively, tenants can complain to the city and request an abatement.

Under the proposed plan, landlords will have the right to a hearing to contest the need for the repair in question. If an abatement is granted, it will be both retroactive to the date of filing a letter, and perpetual until the landlord complies.

According to the council, “The rent abatement ordinance establishes a schedule by which certain conditions existing on a property that are inherently dangerous or impact someones ability to use the property appropriately that are not corrected, would result in the tenant being notified that they qualify for rent abatement and may commence a rent abatement action.”

These abatement cases will be heard by the housing committee on a monthly basis. Because Madison reports only one or two hearings per month, Wassau officials are not anticipating an avalanche of complaints.

In addition to rent abatement, which directly benefits the tenant, the city will still have the right to assess fines daily for building code violations.

The ordinance will include a list of possible reasons for abatement, such as faulty plumbing, heat, appliances or lights, doors and windows that dont close, and sewage backup.

When considering the new rules, officials expressed concern for low income tenants, whose landlords may need to increase the rent to cover routine repairs.  Alternatively, a complaint may result in the property being condemned. The suggested approach is to focus on relocating tenants rather than allowing the building conditions to continue. One Task Force member explains, “It is inherently wrong for a landlord to continuously profit from low income tenants and allow them to live in squalor.”

The city plans to update its website every seven to ten days with a list of addresses that have uncorrected code violations. Tenants can check the list for their home, and apply for a rent abatement. Officials also hope that prospective renters will view the list and avoid those properties.

The city considered the possibility that a tenant may abuse the system, and “use this as a tool to get out from under a debt in a situation that is not eligible,” however, officials are confident that their are enough protections in place to guard against frivolous claims.

With unanimous approval to move forward, the city indicated it would wait until April, 2012 to implement the rule. This will allow time to develop a plan to educate the public, which officials say is crucial because tenants “will not want to complain to us about their landlords without worrying about getting evicted or having the rent raised.” One official stated, “This is where education of tenants will help.”

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