Activists demand rental assistance, eviction protection for all

Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union joins #CancelTheRent call to action

By: - September 28, 2021 2:35 am
Protesters gather to march on Mayor Tom Barrett's house, to demand a freeze on evictions. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Protesters hold an eviction demonstration in Milwaukee in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) participated in a national call to action to stop evictions over the weekend. Organized by the national Cancel the Rents movement, participants demanded that Congress extend an indefinite eviction moratorium, cancel all mortgage and rent debt and speed up the distribution of rental assistance funds.

“At this point nationally and in the state of Wisconsin as well, only about 15% of the funds that have been allocated for rental assistance have been distributed,” MATU activist Bobby Penner told Wisconsin Examiner. “So there are plenty of people in need. What we have to do is break down some of those bureaucratic barriers that get in the way of people receiving those funds, and just generally speed up the process and make more people eligible.”

One of the MATU’s actions over the weekend involved an attempted delivery of a letter to Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s Milwaukee office. MATU was unsuccessful in reaching staff via email or phone, so they taped the demand letter to the door of the building where Baldwin has her office. Penner and others at MATU also collected stories from residents struggling with eviction. One woman said that because she owes back rent from a prior eviction, she’s unable to qualify for rental assistance. “That has cost her to lose her home, and she is homeless,” said Penner. “So there’s major need for the distribution of rental assistance to be more inclusive.”

According to a plan issued by the Milwaukee mayor’s office outlining where American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the city will go, several million dollars are allocated to housing initiatives. That includes $1.2 million for affordable housing operations to fund two-man teams to clean, repair, and turn over the backlog of vacant housing in the city. Another $1.2 million would help fund homebuyer and foreclosure counseling programs, with a total of over $4 million being allocated to affordable and sustainable housing strategies. Anti-eviction activists like Penner, however, feel elected officials aren’t doing nearly enough.

“We have great hope for the right to counsel program,” said Penner, referencing a county-level pilot program that would help tenants fight evictions in court. “And we hope that it turns into a broader reaching program.” He added, “that should be a permanent program. And there should be funding allocated to hire more legal assistance, more lawyers, to make it a viable program.” Penner and other activists say that the city’s ARPA priorities are “disjointed.” “They want to spend the money on them hiring nearly 200 new police officers with this one-time distribution of funds— totally unsustainable, and it goes against the wishes of people in Milwaukee.” In July, community groups united to demand that $200 million of Milwaukee’s ARPA funds go to addressing affordable housing.

“If housing isn’t a priority and people are being evicted,” said Penner, “and people are out on the street and having difficulty surviving, then obviously people are going to be arrested and taken to jail. Or things like that. So really we have to prioritize making sure people have safe, clean, warm places to live with clean water, with working electricity, without bugs and infestations, that’s where the priorities should be. Because if we do that for every citizen in Milwaukee, there’s not going to be a need for all of those police.”


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.