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Milwaukee City Hall launches electrical fire safety campaign after Journal Sentinel's reporting

Jim Galliard, Vice President of Ezekiel Project Hope, a housing improvement group.
Ebony Cox
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Jim Galliard, Vice President of Ezekiel Project Hope, a housing improvement group.

Last August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in the 53206 area code, suspected electrical fires happen at five times the rate than in the rest of the city. Since their initial report, officials from Gov. Tony Evers to acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson have reacted.

Earlier this month, the city of Milwaukee announced the launch of educational campaigns to help renters keep themselves safe from electrical fires. Raquel Rutledge who is an investigative reporter and deputy investigations editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shares the impact of their reporting and what actions are coming out of City Hall.

Rutledge reports that acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and the Department of Neighborhood Services launched an educational campaign to inform renters on the signs of bad electrical wiring. Starting in the area of 53206, a master electrician will be available to help walk tenants through their homes and help identify electrical fire warning signs. The efforts would then be distributed citywide.

However, Rutledge points out that according to some council members, this new campaign feels like "fluff." While the city is taking preventive measures through educating renters and passing out safety checklist, Rutledge says the the problem lies on the landlords who more than likely have a long history of neglect.

It's common for renters to be afraid of complaining, says Rutledge, out of fear of being evicted. "We expose how there can be years and years of violations piling up on some of the landlords. Yet, they are continued to allow the renting of these unsafe places. This first educational campaign is the first step," says Rutledge.

She adds that there is talk underway to have legislation passed in which landlords would be required to have insurance on their property. She says these homes aren't investigated most of the time until there is a homicide or some suspicion of arson. If landlords are forced to get insurance for their properties, insurance companies would be more likely to investigate the issue, thus pressuring landlords to keep their property up to date.

"I think there [are] some other provisions in the works. As well as talk about resurrecting the inspection program, where you have the City Department of Human Services going out and doing a proactive inspection of electrical systems in ... areas where there's evidence that there are many violations," says Rutledge.

As it stands now, there are no fines for violations, Rutledge notes. The fines come in when the Department of Neighborhood Services comes out to do an inspection. While the first one is free, if needed, a re-inspection can cost $175 or more.

"There is talk about whether they could have fines upfront for these violations to encourage landlords to keep their properties up to code. [But] that's just being discussed. I haven't seen any draft legislation on that," says Rutledge.

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