Rubinger Fellowship: Branden DuPont Prevents Derelict Owners from Hiding Behind LLCs

Branden DuPont, Public Allies Milwaukee and AmeriCorps alumnus, has been awarded a 2021 LISC Rubinger Fellowship. Inspired by, he will map property ownership of landlords in Milwaukee, WI — so governments, organizations, and residents know who truly owns what. Per LISC, Rubinger Fellows are “local leaders pushing the boundaries of community development and focusing on issues that impact the long-term quality of life.” Recently, Branden shared his hopes for his LISC Rubinger Fellowship year.

Todd Wellman: You’ve won a LISC Rubinger Fellowship. Congrats! What does this mean for your personal mission?  

Branden DuPont: My work and personal mission is centered around using data analytics to address issues at a structural or system level – with a focus on housing and civil/criminal justice. At their best, civic projects can challenge or highlight unequal power structures, hold accountable abuses of power, and understand disparity.

My project involves property-ownership mapping of landlords in Milwaukee to inform government, community organizations, and residents about “who owns what” and prevent derelict owners from hiding behind LLC structures.

That mission is a tall order for any one person or team. ProPublica does some of the best work in this space. With a relatively spartan staff, their Chicago office put together some incredible, high impact projects — my favorite being the Ticket Trap, which explored how ticket debt drove black motorists into bankruptcy. The outcome of their work halted drivers license suspensions and spurred legislation in Illinois to prevent suspensions for certain unpaid ticket debt.

My project involves property ownership mapping of landlords in Milwaukee to inform government, community organizations, and residents about “who owns what” and prevent derelict owners from hiding behind LLC structures.

This is a serious obstacle Milwaukee policymakers and community members face in working to improve housing conditions, neighborhood stability, and displacement. Property ownership is often organized under limited liability companies, or LLCs, a setup that allows owners to defer risk and to keep their identities secret, making it difficult to link property records to a single landlord.

Community organizations or government agencies like the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office spend weeks of manual effort to answer what should be simple questions: “Who owns that house on my block?” or “What other properties does this landlord own in Milwaukee?”

A consequence of this legal set-up enables bad actors to neglect properties and profit illicitly. As detailed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s series Landlord Games, one landlord hid behind over 50+ LLCs. Those affected by this practice are predominantly Milwaukee renters in poor neighborhoods of color.

TW: Tell us more about the difference between the why and the what or how of the work you’ll do.  

At their best, civic projects can challenge or highlight unequal power structures, hold accountable abuses of power, and understand disparity.

BD: Sure, I’ll give the example of a project I built out that tracks the use of eviction in Milwaukee. Despite the heightened focus on eviction in Milwaukee, policymakers, researchers, and community partners lacked access to eviction data to inform prevention strategies, identify and monitor trends, or conduct eviction-related research. One large reason for this was the technical complexity behind building a project like this. I gave a presentation on this topic in 2019 at Milwaukee’s Data Day. I talked about how a simple question about one of Milwaukee’s top landlords could take weeks to answer prior to the project site being built out.

Regarding the “what” and “how,” I provided the public a tool to see a property’s eviction record for the first time and opened a key data source for housing and legal advocates. Regarding the “why,” Raphael Ramos, Director of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project for Legal Action of Wisconsin, said this of the project:

“From a fundraising/informational perspective, the tool’s ability to paint a picture of the eviction landscape (e. g., filings, writs issued, etc.) helps demonstrate the severity and persistent nature of the eviction crisis. This information is also useful when evaluating the value of representation, as it provides a baseline of outcomes against which we can compare our cases (e. g., stipulation compliance failure rate w/ lawyer v. w/o a lawyer). At an individual case level, the database provides us with a useful tool to assess the history and practices of individual landlords/businesses to identify patterns and practices, etc. Without the database, there is no central repository for this information and we would instead be forced to request the information from courthouse staff, increasing their administrative burden in order to obtain information that may be less consistent in the way it was obtained or prepared.”

TW: How does the work you’ll do for the Fellowship exemplify playing your part, based on who you are?

BD: Let me first recognize that I’m a white, cis male working in this space. I am extremely privileged to be afforded the opportunity to do this work. And civic tech is traditionally dominated by white, male voices like mine. I worked to address this intentionally in the project by budgeting around 10-15% of my fellowship award so I could hire a diverse team to evaluate and conduct user research. This feedback will inform and guide the final design and content of the site I’ll create.

I measure how I’m playing my part by how much the work I do supports others committed to housing justice and fairness. At the end of this project, I aim to build a useful tool that supports tenant unions, housing lawyers, and the general public to quickly research their landlord.

TW: I’ve grown to know you as a go-to data guy. How does this brand sit with you?

BD: Great question – early in my career I wanted to go to law school and become an attorney. I realized quickly that the need for data skills greatly outweighed the need for another attorney or policy analyst.

High-level data skills in the nonprofit and local government can be hard to come by. And it’s wonderful to be able to be a key resource for folks who need data skills to guide decision-making or fund-raise effectively. Sometimes I can quickly help an organization with an analysis that they might take a couple months to put together. And I can finish it in the afternoon. That’s a real impact for nonprofits that are called on to do so much already. I will say it can be difficult at times to balance these requests with existing work and avoid burnout.

TW: What does Milwaukee have to offer?  

BD: I love Milwaukee and summer here is an absolute delight. I didn’t realize how much I love Milwaukee summers until I had to sit one out in quarantine. Milwaukee, especially for its size, has a vibrant coffee scene, which I deeply miss.

I’m an avid bicyclist, so I love the bike trails here. I work at the Medical College of Wisconsin and commute from Riverwest. After getting downtown near the Intermodal Station, I can take the Hank Aaron state trail all the way into Wauwatosa.

TW: What’s your hope for 2021?

BD: I want to do two things:

1. Sit in a coffee shop and read a book
2. Ride in the Riverwest 24 this summer

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Read more about my nonfiction writing here.

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