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 The DNS Code Violation Process

  • Who's involved?
  • How long does it take?
  • Alternative resolutions?
  • Potential costs to owners?

This is a review of the code violation process and how the general public can become more aware of the steps which are necessary to have violations corrected.


The Department employs a variety of inspectors including, plumbing, electrical, constructions, boiler, haz mat, sprinkler, elevator, and code enforcement inspectors. While all enforce the building code, most of the enforcement activity is carried out by code enforcement inspectors. The authority of the inspectors to enforce the building code extends to almost all buildings in the City. All inspectors have the authority to issue orders and citations to correct conditions.


Orders are legal documents which order the owner to make repairs, and set a time limit for completing them. The time limits are based on the severity of the condition and the inspector's judgment on the reasonable amount of time needed to make the repair. The time limit on most notice letters is 30-90 days but they can be as short as one hour or as long as one year. In almost all cases, owners have an opportunity to appeal any orders.


When the compliance date on an order has expired, the inspector may grant an extension of time if the inspector believes that the extension will help achieve compliance. An additional extension can be granted by a supervisor. If the owner has not completed the work in the time required, the order is normally referred for further enforcement action. Normally, prosecution is done in Municipal Court where fines can be levied. The average court ordered fine is over $800. It is important to note that DNS is not interested in the fine, but rather compliance. That is why after the deadline for payment of the fine is passed, the orders are reissued.



Once an order is issued, a deadline for compliance is set. The time depends on the nature of the violation. Serious items could require attention in 24 hours, most are 30 days, paint orders in winter could be 6 months. In order to encourage timely action and to put the cost of repeated violations on the trouble makers, a set of reinspection fees are used. If after the first reinspection following the deadline the violations still remain, a reinspection fee is added to the tax bill. The first reinspection is $50, the second is $75, the third is $150 and each additional reinspection fee is $300. This scale of fees quickly gets the owner's attention and results in quicker compliance.


The occupants of a rental unit, including commercial buildings, may apply to the department for rent withholding if the property they rent has an active overdue order. The exceptions to this are licensed rooming houses or owner-occupied duplexes, and situations where the only violation is exterior painting.

Rather than paying rent to the owner, the tenant pays the rent to the department. Monthly rental receipts are sent to the owner. The payments are held in an escrow account until the owner has complied with all the violations. In some cases, rent withholding funds may be used by the department to make repairs on a property or to pay relocation costs for tenants. The property owner has the right to appeal the departments decision to grant tenants the right to withhold rent. All rent withholding requests require an inspector's approval first.


Under State law, tenants may abate (reduce) a portion of their rent if conditions are such that a portion of their unit is unusable. Rent abatement is an individual action by the tenant and is not administered by DNS. Call the State of Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection for details. (414) 449-4777.


In emergency situations, the Department can issue what is called an 'Essential Service Order. This order gives the City the authority to make repairs and charge the owner if the owner fails to correct unsafe conditions. The costs of the repairs are billed to the owner or placed on the tax bill. Typically these orders are used in emergency conditions relating to heating, plumbing, or electrical items.


State law authorizes the City to order an owner to tear down a building if the cost of repairing it exceeds 50% of the assessed value. It may be declared a public nuisance under State Statute 66.05. If the owner does not comply the City can hire a private contractor to raze the building. The cost for razing the building can be filed as a lien on the real estate or the City can sue the owner for the costs. Since the demolition of an owner's building is a serious action, there are many legal safeguards which limit the City's actions. In a typical case it may take up to 6 months to a year to have a building razed when the owner fails to cooperate. (See the CONDEMNATION Section.)


State law authorizes the City to file a circuit court action to have a property declared a public nuisance. Reasons can include failure to correct building code violations or operating a building in a way that it is a nuisance to the neighborhood. In a nuisance action, the Circuit Court is asked to appoint a receiver to take control of the building. Typically the receiver may be authorized to collect rents, evict tenants who are causing problems, and make any repairs necessary to meet the building code. The City's cost of a receivership action may become a lien on the property.

Often landlords can avoid complaints by keeping illegal activity out of their property. The department offers FREE training on a regular basis to those owning or managing property. See the LANDLORD TENANT TRAINING program for more information.

If a complaint cannot be resolved in a timely manner, it may result in court action against the owner. To learn more about how that process works see the ENFORCEMENT SECTION.


Last update 1/04/02