The media have given ample attention to housing code violations in properties owned by Lee Holloway, Chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. According to one account, city inspectors have identified over 200 housing code violations in Holloway’s small, north-side apartment buildings. The violations include roach and rodent infestations, faulty locks, missing smoke detectors, crumbling plaster, and malfunctioning plumbing.
Because Holloway is an announced candidate for the office of County Executive recently vacated by Governor Scott Walker, Holloway’s violations of the housing code are indeed newsworthy. What’s more, aspects of Holloway’s dilemma are suggestive of the problems related to municipal housing codes, the most serious of which is lack of enforcement.
Why are the codes in Milwaukee and most urban areas so ineffectively enforced?
Part of the answer has to do with bureaucratic delays and general bumbling by municipal officials. In addition and on a deeper level, officials are hesitant to enforce the codes for fear of landlords boarding up their properties and taking them out of the low-end rental market. The urban poor already have limited housing options, and aggressive code enforcement could make this bad situation even worse.
One solution to the problem might be a renewed governmental commitment to public housing. However, government officials have in recent years have voiced no significant support for this idea, and, furthermore, the Supreme Court made clear years ago in Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 74 (1972), that no fundamental right to housing exists under the United States Constitution. As truly sorry as Holloway’s rental units appear to be, they might be better than nothing for the city’s poor.