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SRSLY: Real Estate Vampires of Milwaukee

Your three-minute read on the best reporting you probably missed.


The best reporting you probably missed

David Epstein

Welcome to SRSLY, an (experimental) newsletter highlighting under-exposed accountability journalism. We'll distill the important information from investigative reporting you probably missed, and deliver it to you in three-minutes-or-less worth of reading. Sign up to have it delivered to your inbox. (You can, of course, unsubscribe at the first whiff of a bad joke.)

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MainMuck: Home, Sweet Tax-Free Dilapidated Home

Real estate can actually be liquid. And by liquid, we mean able to conform to the shape of any type of corruption into which it’s placed. The Journal Sentinel’s “Landlord Games” investigation uncovered an astounding property shenanigan in Milwaukee. This week’s four W’s: What? What else? Who? And Who else?


According to the Journal Sentinel, slumlords purchase foreclosed-upon buildings, rent them, allow them to deteriorate, and don’t pay taxes. The city eventually seizes the property, which erases the tax bill. Cool trick. The ex-owner is left only with fines for, say, unsanitary conditions or (Dept. of Minor Oversights alert) renting a building the city explicitly said was uninhabitable.

What else?

Owners might rack up tens of thousands in fines, but the reporters found that if landlords toss a Benjamin the city’s way every now and again, they’re continually given more time to pay. Or they just don’t pay at all. (Crowdsourced investigation opportunity: Try that with your parking ticket and report back.)


The Journal Sentinel said landlord Will Sherard pays $100 every few months on $70,000 in fines. Sherard claimed he couldn’t pay his city fines, but somehow came up with $700,000 in a week (couch cushions?) when a judge ordered him jailed for not paying for lead paint cleanup. Oh, and he drove off in a Corvette when a reporter questioned him. A vintage Corvette, though, so … at least it wasn’t new?

Who else?

According to the Journal Sentinel, Devin Harris is the “secret owner” of one tax-and-fine-eschewing LLC. Cut him some slack, the guy has to work two jobs. His other one is shooting guard for the Dallas Mavericks. HOW DOES HE EAT?! (On Twitter, Harris called the report false and irresponsible journalism.)

They Said It

In a grave insult to vampires, who at least contribute to society via young adult literature, deputy city attorney Adam Stephens said: “They’re like vampires. They suck what little equity is left and they just leave a husk of a property at the end.” (h/t John Diedrich)


Worse Than the House in Grapes of Wrath

And you thought the $3,000 one-bedroom in Brooklyn you share with a rat who always uses your toothbrush was bad. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that housing for seasonal farm workers can mean: moldy mattresses, no electricity, water, or laundry that workers need to wash pesticides off their clothes. In one complex in Illinois, children were playing in raw sewage. In Missouri, housing for foreign workers on visas must be inspected, but inspections are voluntary for employers who hire Americans. (h/t Pam Dempsey)

#facepalm Of The Week

According to, Philadelphia city employees rake in public money by exploiting a loophole that should’ve been obvious even to those born yesterday, and possibly this morning. Philly’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) was meant for employees to signal their intent to retire four years hence — giving the city a chance to look for replacements — at which point they get a lump-sum pension payment. Thing is, public employees realized they could retire, take the payment, go back to work, and resume accruing pension credits. Behold: a Parks and Rec employee with a six-figure salary who retired on Dec. 23, took a $328,395 lump-sum payment, and was rehired on Dec. 25 — MERRY XMAS BRO!! — in a slightly different job for a nearly identical six-figure salary. (h/t @jfagone)

Tweet of The Week

Alas, poor Yorick … and the rest of us.

Additional research by Kate Brown.

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ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.

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