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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 17.0° F  Fair
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Does Madison's chronic-nuisance law spur evictions?
Critic laments that the answers may come too late
Konkel: 'We could have asked more questions.'
Konkel: 'We could have asked more questions.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

Brian Solomon framed it as a plea.

At last week's Common Council meeting, the Madison alder argued passionately for a substitute version of the city's chronic nuisance ordinance, with stronger tenant protections. He recalled a case where the firing of shots in his district led to the eviction of "the vast majority of tenants" from a given building, presumably some of whom were not involved.

Solomon warned that the city, in moving to make this ordinance permanent after a two-year trial run, didn't know how often the threat of enforcement was prompting evictions. He cited a newly released Madison Police Department report (PDF) stating that while only eight properties had been officially declared public nuisance premises since January 2007, more than 100 had gotten drug nuisance and public nuisance letters.

"So we have data on what happened on the eight places where we declared a chronic nuisance," Solomon said. "We have no data on the 100 places where we sent a letter threatening a chronic nuisance."

Then came his plea: "I encourage everybody, before we make this permanent, [to] think about some of the repercussions that may have occurred."

The existing ordinance stated that property owners should "consider" alternatives to eviction, when appropriate. Solomon's alternative would have required them to "implement" these alternatives, when appropriate.

In the discussion that followed, Police Chief Noble Wray expressed his opposition to this and other proposed changes. He acknowledged the interest in knowing "how many evictions were directly associated with a premise being declared a chronic nuisance," but explained that, for various reasons, "we have not been able to get at this kind of information."

The council rejected Solomon's changes on a voice vote, then voted unanimously to make the ordinance permanent. But the data needed to probe eviction-related questions, it turns out, was not that hard to come by.

In fact, it may have been staring council members right in the face.

Brenda Konkel, the former Madison alder and head of the local Tenant Resource Center, was intrigued by Solomon's reference to the police study. She obtained a copy from him and later the City Attorney's Office.

This document includes a list of 104 addresses that have gotten letters from the MPD regarding drug activity or public nuisance activity, mostly the former.

Anyone who has this list can look up the property owners on the city assessor's website, then check the state's online court records system, WCCA, to see if eviction actions have been brought.

Konkel has an even better tool: a Tenant Resource Center spreadsheet that lists 7,200 Dane County evictions that have happened since January 2007, more or less a complete list. Searches can be done by address.

In several cases, eviction actions have occurred shortly before or after MPD letters. But it's not always clear there's a connection, as when a flagged building has multiple units.

One case Konkel highlights involves a particular unit at 1717 Lake Point Dr. In mid-February 2007, the MPD sent a letter to the landlord warning of drug activity. In early March, the landlord initiated an eviction against a tenant in that unit; Konkel's spreadsheet lists "drug activity" as the stated reason.

Konkel is still working her way through the MPD list, as well as a list of owners, released last Friday, who've been contacted by the City Attorney's Office. She's upset that this material was not provided earlier.

"If we had known what the cases were, we could have asked more questions," she says. Key among them: What else did property owners do besides evicting tenants?

Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy, who works largely on chronic nuisance cases, doubts landlords overuse eviction: "If they're getting rent from people, evicting them is not something they want to do."

But Solomon still feels "eviction of innocent people is too big a risk" and has community-wide effects on social services, homelessness and law enforcement.

"It's a good tool," he says of the chronic nuisance law, which he voted for. "But I think we should be using it right, and I don't think we have sufficient evidence to know that we are."

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