Smoke Detectors, Rental Housing and You

Eds Note: Dr. Rent apparently just heard of another agenda item for the city council meeting tonight and wanted to express his thoughts on the issue. This is as good a time as any to remind people that each writer here is speaking for him/herself. If you have an opinion on this or any issue presented here, you can use the comment box, or drop me a line if you to start a new item for discussion.

John H. Fischer

By Dr. Rent:

My first post was to address the importance of the Stewart/University Avenue decision coming up at tonight’s Wausau city council meeting. That was until I was informed by a long-standing apartment association member of something that is up for a vote which has received no public input, probably because it has not shown up on any agenda, yet it will involve over 1/3 of those people living in Wausau. (Over 1/2 have of those living in the downtown area, thats alot of voters)The City of Wausau will consider making it a requirement that ALL rental properties (including existing rental properties) have hard-wired, inter-connected smoke detectors.

As it exists, all new residential construction does have to have hard-wired smoke detectors, whether they be single family, duplex, or multifamily. All rental units, regardless of age, have to have smoke detectors on each level. State law indicates that it is the landlords responsibility to maintain the smoke detectors and in every standardized lease I have reviewed, it is a breach of the lease for tenants to render the smoke detectors inoperable (i.e. remove the battery).

The fire department is proposing this change indicating that tenants would be less likely to render the detectors inoperable. Although that is true, we have a couple of buildings with hard-wired detectors and we find them unplugged or completely missing. To be truthful, not as often as a percentage as batteries gone, but it happens more often than we would like.

The biggest issue that I have is that the city has decided to proceed without getting any input from any stakeholder other than the fire department.

The cost of retro-fitting older buildings with hard-wired, interconnected smoke detector could easily be over $1,000 per unit. That is not a cost that will become the burden of landlords. As real estate is an investment, when the operating costs of a landlord increase, they just increase rents to recoup this cost. So, who will pay for this, THE TENANTS WILL. That is just a fact of life. And the units that will be the most expensive to retro-fit will be the up & down duplexes that tend to be the more “affordable” units in town. There is a severe lack of low cost rental units for those with minimum wage jobs, and this will make these units even less affordable, with no real increase in the safety of these units. Also, retro-fitting some of these older properties will also very likely create some lead-based paint issues.

Also, changing batteries is important to many landlords. We change out all of the batteries in our detectors twice each year. This changing of the batteries serves TWO important purposes. 1) Complying with fire codes and keeping our tenants safe. 2) It gives us a chance to see our properties from the inside! To determine what care this tenant has taken of the unit, to ensure that the unit is still a safe and habitable place to live.

I believe that a law should be passed that prevents people from being discriminated against based on choice of housing. I believe that people who live in rental properties should have equal protection under the law as people who live in condominiums, and people who own their own home. No one should be treated differently because of how they choose to live.

Therefore, if apartments and rentals have to be retrofitted, so should single family, owner-occupied homes.

This item was not clear in the published meeting minutes. The city council agenda has this as “Joint Ordinance repealing and recreating Title 17 – Fire Prevention.”

The Public Safety published meeting notes described this as “Discussion and possible action regarding the revision of the City Fire Prevention Ordinance including but not limited to the addition of Occupancy Permits linked to established fire prevention.”

It is obvious that the City was trying to back door this, if the agenda stated this smoke detector revision, this would have been meet with strong opposition in committee! Although I was not a big fan of Mayor Linda Lawrence, I thought her greatest accomplishment was bringing alot of different parties to the table to discuss issues that impact them all, she opened the door for cooperation between city planners, home owners, landlords, tenants, the fire dept, the police dept, etc. I would hate to think that openness is now gone and the City doesn’t care about the impact they have when passing laws without knowing how ALL parties will be impacted.

My recommendation would be that the City refer this back to the committee, and the committee then be required to also get input from other stake holders. We know the Fire Dept’s thought on things. Now, talk to landlords about how this will effect them. Talk to tenants about how this will effect them. Talk to electrictions to get an idea of just what kind of costs we are talking about it.

If you are a renter living in Wausau and you have battery operated smoke detectors, this will effect you. If this passes, expect the landlord to have to do major remodeling to retro-fit your unit, and expect a healthy rent increase to cover its cost! Contact the City!


4 responses to “Smoke Detectors, Rental Housing and You

  1. I think it is good that Wausaublog will provide some critical insight into things like this at the City level.

    I think it is important that we at least pay attention to what our civic leaders are doing.

    I personally have never really understood the language on the agenda’s at the City Council meeting, and I have attended many of them.

    So much of it seems like “inside baseball” to me.

  2. A lot takes place at the committee level. In this particular case, the change won’t be effective for several years and it is part of an update of a rather extensive ordinance. We already know that certain portions will be revisited, including language that currently bans patio firepits. The smoke alarm provision could also be revisited if it is regarded as particularly onerous, but that is a case that will have to be made. I’m not on the Public Health & Safety Committee, but the ordinance revision came up at Finance because there are some fees that are being updated. My understanding of the hardwiring provision on smoke detectors is that it is a matter of “best practices” and that it is not an unusual requirement in municipal fire codes. I’m sure everyone on the council is more than willing to listen to alternative views.

  3. A victory was won. This part of the new fire ordinance was sent back to committee where it can be looked at more in-depth.

    Two of the council members appears to take offence at my statement that this was a back-door’ed issue. I am sorry they took offence at the remark, but I in no way regret or apologize for the remark itself.

    Too often in laws at all levels, small things of major consequence are hidden in larger issues that have common support. Sometimes it is done on purpose. This time, I believe it was not.

    Call it administrative house-cleaning if you want, this was a big deal that was not represented fully in the meeting notices. It only leads me to wonder how many other administrative house-cleaning issues effecting renters in Wausau have already passed.

  4. I know the next Public Health and Safety committee meeting is 2/19. Their agenda has not yet been posted (and wont be until about a week before the meeting) but I understand the committee will address this item again then at that time.

    I have sent an email to the various members of that committee with my views, not only as a landlord, but as a landlord who does A LOT to help educate and train other landlords to make the industry better as a whole.

    In it, I do propose some compromises that I am sure some landlords wont care for (for example, requiring landlords to inspect all smoke detectors at least annually, maybe even semi-annually).

    However, the goal of the City and the Fire Department is keeping people safe. I beleive that battery-operated smoke detectors can keep people just as safe as a hard-wired system. I also believe that landlords can do more without financial burden.

    In a perfect world, I would do what I did with the Wausau Nuisance Ordinance. In that case, I met with the Asst City Attorney and the WPD Officer whose idea it was. And with a few minor tweaks, it became better for everyone. (Most Nuisance Ordinances face significant legal fights from Apartment Associations across the country; Wausau’s was welcomed by apartment owners.. it is drafted in a way that actually helps us as well as the City and Law Enforcement. Common sense laws that help…. go figure.)

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