City tries to demand costly repairs to house being demolished

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by Diane Moca

MILWAUKEE--When a city inspector told a homeowner on the south side she had to make thousands of dollars worth of repairs to a house the city planned on tearing down, she thought: You gotta be kidding, right?

But the demand was no joke.

"It's frustrating and scary," described Elda Hernandez when revealing her tale of two city departments that didn't seem to be in sync.

Last year, a city inspector came to Elda's house near Harrison and 14th to approve a furnace permit and noticed her circuit breakers had been installed without permits.

So he told her to get her electrical box rewired.

Elda and her son were shocked, because the city development department had already told her they were buying her house to knock it down.

"Just to get along right now is pretty hard, and to do this kind of repair when the house is just gonna be torn apart makes no sense," declared Cristobal Hernandez, Elda's son.

Elda says she explained this to the inspector, but he still insisted she hire an electrician.

So she contacted an electrician, who gave her "an estimate close to four thousand (dollars). That's a lot of money, and I don't have the money," noted Elda.

When the inspector returned, she told him again she saw no point in making such expensive repairs.

But the inspector refused to back off and sent her a letter charging her $125 dollars for the two inspections and threatening to fine her up to $10,000 a day if she didn't fix the violation.

"This is an electrical problem. It could potentially lead to a fire that could jeopardize the rest of the neighborhood," explained Todd Weiler, communications coordinator for the Department of Neighborhood Services.

"That line has been like that 5, 6, 7 years, and I haven't had no problems at all," noted Elda.

"Our inspector says it's brand new. They say it was there all the time. It's still wrong," added Weiler.

Weiler insisted the violation letter was sent in August when his department didn't know the Department of City Development was buying the home for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District flood prevention project.

"You work for the city, and you don't know what's going on in the city? It makes no sense at all," insisted Cristobal.

He said Neighborhood Services found out the home was being considered for acquisition and demolition when City Development contacted Neighborhood Services on November 1, three months after the August inspection.

But Elda says crews were demolishing two houses right across the street from hers when the inspector came to her home, and she repeatedly told him her house was in the next phase of demolition.

"These are promises that have no tangible basis," said Weiler, adding that the inspector's job is not to notice if homes are being torn down because "the burden of our responsibility is to make sure all the properties are safe while they're occupied."

So Elda asked for help from the city development manager, who had visited her home to get information for the city to buy her house "in six months."

She said the city development manager asked the inspector if Elda could be released from the obligation to repair the home since it was going to be leveled, but she said he also was rebuffed by the inspector.

"That's too long to leave a building with ungrounded electric in there, especially occupied," explained Weiler, adding that he didn't know if the sale would even happen.

"Many of these real estate deals fall through," said Weiler, noting that he didn't have details about the acquisition or eminent domain process.

But Elda had plenty of information she provided to the inspector.

Elda showed CBS 58 a letter documenting that the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) identified Elda's home as one of the properties it intended to buy and tear down more than two years earlier.

The MMSD project is designed to return the Kinnickinnick River to a more natural state by removing the concrete liner and adding grass and trees and paths.

Cristobal commented: "I love the idea they have behind it, make this river natural, (like) back in the days when you can actually fish."

But he thinks the city should go fishing for violations somewhere else besides his mother's home, which was snared by the city's net while the family was trying to do the right thing by pulling a permit to install a new furnace.

Weiler said shortly after CBS 58 contacted both departments in December, the City Development department requested the Neighborhood Services department put Elda's case on hold for three months while they negotiated the purchase.

Weiler said he agreed because "it would be pointless to take something to court that's going to be demolished."

That's exactly what Elda had been telling the inspector since August, before the first violation notice was sent.

At this point, Neighborhood Services says it won't take Elda to court in February as planned.

Elda says she has not received confirmation of that from the city, but after meeting with CBS 58 she did get a call from an appraiser.

She had received a letter saying her house would be appraised "shortly" in November.

Weiler admits the violations could affect the fair market value Elda is offered for her home.

"It's another thing to screw with the people that don't have the means to protect themselves," declared Cristobal.

Weiler said the electrical problem is not dangerous enough to force the residents out but could start a fire if lightning or a power surge struck the house.

Elda thinks the chain reaction started by the violation notices just wasn't grounded in common sense and insists her family is safe in their home until it's sold and torn down.

If you've got an issue you'd like us to investigate, send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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