One of Milwaukee’s biggest landlords is suing a local group of housing and tenants rights activists for defamation. Youssef “Joe” Berrada, who runs companies that own an estimated 8,000 Milwaukee-area rental properties, is seeking damages against the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU), after its members protested and made social media posts following a fire at a Berrada property. The fire took the life of a 6-year-old boy, whose mother joined MATU in protesting the property’s conditions. Berrada is accusing MATU of spreading misinformation about the fire, thereby damaging the landlord’s reputation in the community.
The lawsuit revolves around efforts by the MATU to blast landlords for negligent maintenance of properties, which can cause electrical fires. Both MATU and Berrada’s property empire are located in Milwaukee. The lawsuit – in which MATU is described as a socialist or communist organization – was filed in the more conservative Ozaukee County where Berrada lives. The case stems from a late November 2022, fire at one of Berrada’s properties, on Milwaukee’s largely African American North Side. When firefighters arrived a woman, Stacy Watson, was screaming that her 6-year-old child was still inside.
Members of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) join other Milwaukee residents in a protest calling for a freeze to rents and evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Firefighters tackled the blaze and located the child in his bedroom. The boy was transported to a hospital, but did not survive exposure to the fire and smoke. An investigation of the fire noted that the cause was “undetermined due to being unable to identify the ignition sequence,” according to Milwaukee Fire Department records included in court documents for the lawsuit. Watson was interviewed by police, while the fire department analyzed the damaged areas from least to most burned.
“A plastic bowl on the kitchen/dining room wooden table showed burn marks and used cigarette butts,” the records noted, adding that the bowl had clearly been used as an ashtray. Yet, it was the 6-year-old’s bedroom which was the most damaged, and was the room where the fire is believed to have originated. “Standing in the doorway to this room, char and blistering was noted to the door trim on the top and sides showing fire going outwards into the hallway,” the firefighters’ report continues. “The bedroom door was closed at the time of the fire, being opened by E-16’s crew during the search and firefight.”
Most of the wall and ceiling coverings in the room were destroyed by “overhaul operations with drywall and wet insulation on the ground,” the notes further documented. “A small kids/baby mattress was found still intact in the northeast corner,” the notes state. “An electrical outlet above this area showed some thermal damage but unable to tell if anything was plugged in (another outlet noted under the east window, mid wall near the floor with minimal damage to the faceplate and nothing appearing to be plugged in at the time of the fire).”
Members of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU). (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
No heat source or heat producing appliance was found in or around the area. During her interview with police, according to court filings, Watson said “her son had started fires in the past but is unsure how this fire started.” The documents state that besides the fire department’s investigation “a ‘cause and origin’ expert conducted a separate investigation, “and confirmed that the fire was not an electrical fire,” No documents produced by the expert, however, were included in court filings. A spokesperson for the Milwaukee Fire Department told Wisconsin Examiner that the fire’s cause is documented as undetermined, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be involved in, or know about, any other investigations besides its own.
By June, organizers from MATU had connected with Watson and organized a protest. About six people attended, alongside Watson and Hayden Trouble Harwood, the only MATU member who has been specifically named in the suit so far. Harwood is also a tenant at one of Berrada’s properties, according to MATU. In late June a post on MATU’s Facebook page about a follow up protest outside of Berrada’s office in Milwaukee read: “Stand with our fellow tenant, neighbor, and mother to demand justice for the preventable death of her child,” the post read. “Electrical fires are frequently caused by landlords neglecting maintenance. In Milwaukee, this has led to numerous deaths.”
Calling the 6-year-old “the latest victim,” the post stated, “from landlords to the government, the whole system is guilty.” As they organized around the fire, MATU members gave interviews to Milwaukee’s CBS station. The resulting story and video report which, according to court filings, referenced work on a furnace that had occurred days before the fire, was later taken down.
The court filing also blasts MATU for raising questions about the relationship between Berrada and the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) in Milwaukee. The department is responsible for, among other things, overseeing properties in the city and enforcing code violations. MATU began to highlight that a former DNS employee who worked for the city as an inspector for 14 years, and managed special enforcement of landlords with numerous properties, or properties with problems or complaints.
Milwaukee’s Autonomous Tenants Union fights back
Initially, attorney Ryan Walsh – a member of the conservative Federalist Society – represented Berrada in the lawsuit and drafted the original filings. On Aug. 4, however, Walsh withdrew from the case and has since declined a request for comment from the Wisconsin Examiner. Neither Berrada nor his new attorneys, Stephen Kravit and Andrea Panozzo, have not responded to requests for comment.
In a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner, MATU pushed back against the various assertions made against its work. “MATU maintains unequivocally that we have taken no action that has damaged the reputation of Joe Berrada or [Berrada Property Management] any further than they have damaged it through their own actions,” the group said in a statement. As recently as Tuesday, TMJ4 reported on a maggot infestation at a property managed by Berrada. The property manager was unavaliable for comment until an hour before the story aired, telling TMJ4 that an exterminator was notified of the problem.
Members of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) . (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Throughout court filings, Berrada’s attorneys point to instances where MATU have used the words “slumlords” and “parasites” to describe landlords. “Berrada has a 2.3 star rating on Google reviews with hundreds of past and present tenants giving one star reviews and condemning BPM’s practices,” MATU said in a statement, adding that the organization embraces its portrayal as advocates for socialism. “We do favor the de-commodification of all housing and the abolition of the system of landlordism,” the group’s statement reads.
Part of the union’s work involves visiting properties to assess their condition, and interview tenants about problems. In doing so, MATU members say they have regularly encountered people who are dissatisfied with the condition of Berrada’s properties and that code violations are often easily found.
“We have the photographic and videographic evidence necessary to demonstrate that these conditions exist as well as hundreds of tenant members and contacts living in Berrada buildings whose assertions we accept as legitimate and well-informed,” the group states. “The reason MATU started working with BPM tenants in the first place is the high volume of complaints we received from the tenants in Berrada-owned buildings.”
Complaints collected by the group include evictions, harassment, failure to answer maintenance requests, broken appliances, broken windows, electrical problems, plumbing issues, water damage, flooding, retaliation for filing complaints with state or city agencies, and other problems.
“MATU takes its investigative work seriously and spends time with tenants to determine the efficacy of their allegations and what can be done to address them in a manner that is productive for the tenant,” the group states.
Members of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU). (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The union also pushed back against the lawsuit’s depiction of its response to the late November fire. MATU asserts that, while the fire department could not determine the cause of the fire, the group maintains a “reasonable belief” that an electrical malfunction could have been the cause, and points to a 2022 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that found that Milwaukee’s Black rental neighborhoods experience a disproportionately high number of electrical fires.
Attorney William Sulton, who is defending MATU, told Wisconsin Examiner, “This is not Mr. Berrada’s first attempt to silence MATU and its members.”
“He has had his attorneys send threatening letters in the past, so this is merely an escalation of previous behavior.” Sulton said. He called Berrada “thin-skinned” for filing the lawsuit. “This is a multi-millionaire, somebody who has the ability to hire the best law firms in our state, somebody who has an army of lawyers at his fingertips, and yet he is attacking folks that he knows lack resources. And that’s really what I think this is about. This lawsuit isn’t about defamation, this lawsuit isn’t about damages, it’s about silencing people because he’s rich and powerful.”
This story will be updated with any comment received from Berrada or his attorneys.
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F08%2F10%2Fmilwaukee-landlord-berrada-sues-tenants-union-for-defamation%2F by Isiah Holmes