Midelfort on Reetz Road.
10. One landlord at a time
Previously in this series:
Brent Midelfort keeps a 9 mm bullet next to the personal computer in his property management office, a reminder of the bad old days when he first moved onto Reetz Road at the eastern edge of Orchard Ridge 12 years ago.
Before there was Balsam or Park Ridge there was Reetz Road. Running northwest from Raymond Road, just west of Verona Road, it was a smaller version of Allied Drive on the other side of the highway.
Midelfort, the son of a professor of classics at the UW, was still in his 20s when he moved into one of the quaint duplexes on Reetz Road. He began by renting out the other half then started purchasing more properties.
Midelfort describes breaking up a prostitute and her john in the act, drug transactions and everywhere filth and litter.
"As things got worse on Reetz I planted the seeds with landlords, I said if you ever want to sell your property I want to buy."
Since then, he has sunk thousands of dollars to improve his properties. Midelfort values outside "curb appeal" as a welcome sign that all is well on Reetz.
Like Nick Dorneanu, he won't take Section 8 vouchers, finding a direct correlation with high crime levels and property damage. He attributes that to the corrosive effects of the something-for-nothing culture.
"If someone hands you something - I had to learn this myself - I fully took advantage of my parents. I became an adult when my parents finally cut off the purse strings."
Midelfort does not participate in the Section 8 program partly because he allows tenants to take a $40 rent credit if paid on or before the first of the month. That, he says, is not allowed under the program.
But Midelfort has a distaste for the program born of experience.
Before he started buying his own properties, he managed an apartment complex near Badger Road that accepted Section 8 vouchers. Constant fighting, trash strewn everywhere, drug use, children unsupervised.
"I've seen the correlation personally. These are perfectly able-bodied people. They're sitting around playing video games or smoking pot and leaving their kids to run free. The kids are locked out of their buildings … they would come into the office to use the bathroom."
Midelfort continues: "We're forming a dependent society. If you sit and cut people checks endlessly, month after month, you don't provide any incentives for them to get off their butts and work. I fully understand there is a segment of society that does need assistance for physical or mental reasons, but from my own experiences (seven years ago managing another property) there wasn't a Saturday I didn't pick the lot ... you could have a full-time guy just picking trash … they just throw it … constant fights …"
In his book, Power to the People, welfare reforming Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson writes: "Our changes have been rooted in one overriding principle: government should require individual responsibility in exchange for assistance."
FDR in 1935 used stronger language: Welfare, he said, "is a narcotic … a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
Today, Reetz Road is a success story. Midelfort attributes the clean-up to thorough screening of tenants and investments in the properties.
"I've fought my war on Reetz for 10 years and now I would sit down for dinner with any of those people and they're welcome at my table. But I'm tired and I want some change.
"Why should we have to forfeit our quality of life? I love Madison and I don't like what I am seeing. I don't feel like I should have to expect those changes."
Tough on landlords
Landlords have been getting a bad rap ever since The Perils of Pauline in the silent picture era.
To be sure, a minority are low-rent characters. Even those are not doing much more than taking advantage of what the government will give them. If Uncle Foolish guarantees 70 percent of your paycheck, how can you turn that down?
The many landlords Blaska's Blog has known throughout the years are conscientious and community-spirited. Brent Midelfort, for instance, serves on the Orchard Ridge neighborhood association board of directors.
The City of Madison, for its part, is tougher on landlords than most - thanks especially to the tenure of professional tenant advocate Brenda Konkel on the Common Council while receiving city funding for her Tenant Resource Center.
Some have proposed licensing landlords, a move that is resisted by the Apartment Association of South Central WI.
"It is a misperception to think that registering landlords will somehow address the growing crime problem we are seeing," its executive director, Nancy Jensen, says. "There are a small, limited number of landlords who are not using best practices out of thousands of caring, excellent property owners and managers in Madison. The chronic nuisance ordinance we have in place is a strong tool that provides the city with the ability to take control of a poorly managed property"
Authorities do have sharp arrows in their quiver:
- The Section 8 program has kicked three landlords off its eligibility list in recent years. Program director Agustin Olvera says confidentiality rules prevent disclosing their names.
- The Wisconsin Drug Abatement Law can confiscate - even raze - housing used as drug labs, warehouses, or retail outlets. After bringing down a heroin operation on Balsam Road in July, Madison police invoked State Statute 823.113(1) against the owner of 5817 Balsam.
- The city has its own Chronic Nuisance Ordinance. As a last resort, it allows the city to foreclose on a landlord who does not resolve building code violations or has three police actions within 90 days at a specific address. Short of foreclosure, it can assess costs for police calls.
Neighborhood Police Officer John Amos is requesting from the landlords on Balsam/Russett area a list of rent rolls from their properties. A police summer intern is compiling that data. "As I get reports and we make police contact at these addresses I will compare them against each other and notify landlords of incidents so they will hopefully take lease enforcement actions when necessary."
Tom McKenna, president of the Orchard Ridge neighborhood association, wants to publicize the names of the 25 worst landlords.
Tim Johnson lives in the housing he rents on Russett Road. Like Midelfort, he is a member of his neighborhood association board - in his case, Meadowood.
Johnson lays out a series of tools that landlords can use to keep their property crime-free:
1. An anti-drug rule guest policy
2. Addendum to the lease prohibiting "guests" from staying more than 14 days
3. A 5-day notice letter from the police warning of a drug nuisance
4. A 5-day notice to quit (leave) or pay rent
5. A 14-day notice to leave or face eviction
6. Month-to-month leases that, successfully completed, could lead to 6-month leases, then annual leases.
"The majority of your problems are in the first three months," Johnson says, from experience.