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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's investigation continues to uncover electrical fires disproportionately impacting the 53206 zip code

WIRES AND FIRES, Journal Sentinel Investigation Cover
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
WIRES AND FIRES, Journal Sentinel Investigation Cover

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released an investigative report that found electrical fires hit Milwaukee’s Black renters the hardest, with the fires happening five times more frequently in the city’s 53206 zip code.

The Journal Sentinel recently released a second installment of their investigation where they hired veteran electrician, Bruce Janczak, to inspect rental properties in the 53206 zip code. What the electrician found and what the reporters saw was troubling.

The investigation was led by Raquel Rutledge, an investigative reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with the assistance of Journal Sentinel summer intern, Tamia Fowlkes, who is a senior at UW-Madison.

Rutledge says the goal of the second installment of the investigation was to determine how prevalent and overlooked some of these electrical fire risks are.

Rutledge says that their team knocked on 50 different doors over the summer in the 53206 zip code. They asked if tenets would let them do an electrical inspection of their places. Of those 50 homes, only 15 invited them in.

"We found 47 code violations pertaining to electrical hazards. Panels that were exposed, wires that were frayed, lights that didn't work and flickered, and missing outlets that didn't work. There was a lack of outlets and properties that were not properly grounded," Rutledge says.

The Journal Sentinel reached out to John Johnson, a Marquette University researcher, who originally generated a random sampling of the 50 properties around 53206.

"We were able to ultimately conclude that as many as, if not more, [than] 80% of all the single and two-family rental properties in 53206 would have electrical code violations," Rutledge says.

Master electrician Bruce Janczak looks at a gutter that has torn off and is lying on the main electrical wire feeding this rental home on West Clarke Street in June 2021.
Master electrician Bruce Janczak looks at a gutter that has torn off and is lying on the main electrical wire feeding this rental home on West Clarke Street in June 2021.

Fowlkes attended all 15 inspections and she shares that a common issue is that electrical fires often exist within concealed spaces.

"Whether it be things like having too many extension cords throughout your house, and using that to power major appliances in your home, that can be something that can cause an electrical fire or hazards in the home. So, just things like that were the most jarring to me," says Fowlkes.

On theory for the high number of electrical fires was the age of the homes in the neighborhood. But, the Journal Sentinel found that in zip code 53204, renters experience fires at a rate three times lower than 53206. The median home value in 53206 is $28,500; comparatively the median home value in 53204 is $58,800. However in 53204 the median construction year is 1895; while in 53206 the median construction year is 1913.

Other factors at play in this disparity include affluence, and the trouble that community members in 53206 face when getting people to come make electrical repairs in their neighborhood because some might feel it's too dangerous.

"I think that having a willingness to go out, and look at these homes and put someone in the space to do that for a lot of these individuals who either couldn't afford to or hadn't gotten the opportunity to previously was really important," Fowlkes says.

Landlords in the area had mixed reactions to the reports. While others were more appreciative of the information that Rutledge and Fowlkes were presenting, others reacted more negatively. Rutledge says many landlords have a lack of financial incentive to maintain their property. Rutledge adds that some of the people renting these homes have a history of having trouble paying rent, may have had evictions on their record, or have a criminal history.

"[Renters] don't have the options to choose. The landlords recognize that, and they don't feel like they're going to get their investment back if they put money into properties in 53206. So the finances are one thing," says Rutledge.

Rutledge says that the Milwaukee Common Council was initially surprised and pretty eager to address this issue. However, due to some changes the state legislature made, the council's ability to do inspections is limited.

Still, Rutledge says there are ways the state can act. The state legislature is looking at whether to mandate insurance for all property owners, which would require inspections. She also says that for change to happen, electrical fire deaths need to stop being recorded as "accidents."

"It reminds me a little bit of drunk driving. Years and years ago when people would just say it was an accident. It wasn't until you had the awareness raised that it was like 'no, actually, no. Some of these things that can be prevented.' There are ways to prevent these [fires]," says Rutledge.

Fowlkes remembers interviewing an older woman from Chicago who moved to Milwaukee. The woman, Fowlkes says, experienced a fire in her home when she lived in Chicago. The memory haunts her while in Milwaukee as her neighborhood faces the same issues. Fowlkes says this is an issue nationwide.

"I think that the most fulfilling part of doing this piece was how many community members appreciated the opportunity to have their homes inspected. And also to be aware that the issues are still happening for other people in the community... I think that this is quite clearly an issue on a national scale. It's not just in Milwaukee," says Fowlkes.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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