Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Historic Commission Creates Reprieve For Illegally Modified Homes

Unsuspecting buyers may purchase illegally modified historically protected buildings.

By - May 2nd, 2023 01:19 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A new City of Milwaukee historic preservation certificate aims to end the often painful process where new homeowners are told they need to make thousands of dollars in repairs to improper modifications made by a prior owner or face fines for building code violations.

The “certificate of repose” would give new property owners relief, allowing them to keep the non-conforming modification until it wears out or is electively replaced.

“When your vinyl window fails at the end of its 10 to 15 years, that’s the end of your certificate of repose,” said Historic Preservation Commission staffer Tim Askin at Monday’s commission meeting. The replacement windows would need to be wood windows.

The issue applies to the approximately 2,000 locally-designated historic properties, modifications to them made without a permit and the complaint-based process that triggers enforcement.

Several times in recent years, the commission has reviewed cases where neighbors reported violations after a property was sold. Askin said the properties, often part of larger historic districts like Grant Boulevard or North Point, draw extra attention when listed.

New owners are called before the commission for an awkward conversation: their dream house now needs several thousand dollars in modifications to be code compliant. Violations can often include paint needing to be removed from brick, replacing improper fences or railings or replacing a roof with the proper type of shingle.

The commission has long been reluctant to grant nonconforming approvals for fear of creating a legal loophole that allows other property owners an excuse to make improper modifications.

The new policy, shepherded through the council by historic commissioner and alderman Robert Bauman, creates a reprieve for both the commission and property owners.

“You don’t have to fix it while it’s still working,” said Askin. “Once you touch it, you fix it.”

The modification needs to be at least three year old and cost more than $1,000 to fix. The property needs to have been sold in an arm’s length transaction. Askin and Bauman noted the framework prevents “shady transactions” where an individual would make an improper, often much cheaper change than transfer the property to create fraudulent legal protection.

The proposal initially was only for improper modifications that were more than 10 years old.

“I don’t know that that makes sense for a new property owner coming here,” said commission chair Rafael Garcia. The commission debated different lengths, but Askin recommended they maintain a time component to prevent any fraudulent activity. He cited the need to avoid an existing enforcement loophole where the transfer of a property with an outstanding violation restarts the enforcement process.

There are already some legal protections in place for new owners, including a state disclosure requirement that a deed restriction historically protects the property. “Buyers have taken [non-diclosing sellers] to court and won,” said Askin on Tuesday when the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee debated the measure.

The commissioners all indicated they were familiar with the current, painful process.

“I’ve seen it several times where people sitting across the table become absolutely irate ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know,'” said Commissioner Sally Peltz.

But Askin said a fair amount of the time it’s also the buyer failing to read the disclosure form. The policy does not protect property owners, even new ones, that modify their own properties.

Both the historic commission and zoning committee unanimously endorsed the policy. The full council is expected to vote on the change on May 9.

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