Landlords pleased with Court of Appeals ruling against city of La Crosse

An appeals court has ruled in favor of La Crosse landlords, saying a city ordinance violates state law.

The case began in May of last year, with two La Crosse landlords filing a lawsuit against the city. By the time a Wisconsin Court of Appeals took up the case, the number of plaintiffs had grown to 34.

The city ordinance would have required landlords to notify their tenants of a city inspection as a part of the city’s inspection and registration program.

The attorney representing the landlords, Bernardo Cueto, said Wisconsin law is “pretty clear” that cities and towns cannot require landlords to give more information to their tenants than is required under state law.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said the city will tweak the language of the ordinance, but the ruling doesn’t change much.

To say rental properties are important to the La Crosse housing market may be a bit of an understatement.

“It’s about 50 percent rental housing and 50 percent owner-occupied housing,” Kabat said.

That’s why Kabat said the city is putting lots of effort into improving the safety and quality of homes in the city and why the city wanted to put the notification ordinance in place.

“We’re going to continue to make those tweaks so that that program can be effective, because that’s ultimately what we all want is safe and decent housing in the city,” Kabat said.

Cueto said the ruling is a big victory for property owners all across Wisconsin.

He said the city’s ordinance was pushing landlords to be the middleman between tenants and the city, and the landlords didn’t want that.

“Look, this is a tenant’s home; if the city wants to go in there and inspect, they should just go directly to the tenant,” Cueto said.

Cueto also said the ordinance would have also led to less affordable housing in the city.

“If you start charging landlords for every little thing, only the largest landlords are usually going to meet all the requirements and what that’s going to do, is that’s going to bring the values for these rental properties way up, making it so a lot of poorer families are not going to stick around,” Cueto said.

But Kabat disagrees.

“I think we have such a strong rental housing demand here, to think that because a property owner has to get their rental property registered and inspected is going to somehow significantly impact the housing market in a negative way, I’m just not buying it, I don’t see that.”

Kabat said the city’s registration and inspection program has been around for more than 10 years and has been successful, but there is still work to do.

He said the city has already been working on changing its inspection notification process, so now that the lawsuit is over the city can get back to improving neighborhoods in the city.

Cueto said this ruling is bigger than for just La Crosse. The Court of Appeals is recommending this ruling be published. Cueto said most decisions are not published, but when a court of appeals decides an opinion should be published… the means the court feels it is one of the most important opinions in Wisconsin this year.