A Milwaukee rental home on the North Side of the city. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
“Right now, I’m still frustrated, I’m scared ‘cause I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Patricia Williams tells Wisconsin Examiner as she sits on the front porch of the place she called home for nearly a decade. “I don’t know where I’m going to go.” Like many others across Milwaukee County, the 62-year-old mother to four and grandmother to 19 is getting evicted by her landlord.
Wisconsin no longer has any eviction bans in place. The federal eviction moratorium ended last August, and landlords can now file for eviction for nonpayment of rent. In Milwaukee, evictions have surged to pre-pandemic levels. According to Eviction Lab, 191 evictions have been filed in the last week. Over 21,000 have been filed since March, 2020. On Wednesday, waiting for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office to arrive and conduct the eviction, Williams braced for what will be an uncertain future.
She had lived in the house since 2013. It belonged to her ex-husband’s mother before it was acquired by the city. Her landlord, Athlene Alexis, who owns EKCJ LLC, bought the home from the city in late 2015. “When the city took the house we had to start paying $500 a month,” says Williams. Suddenly, living in the home on N. 21st Street on Milwaukee’s predominately African American North Side, was a financial strain.
In the years prior, “it was free because it belonged to my ex-husband’s family,” says Williams. “And then soon as Alexis bought it in December 2015, she jacked the rent up to $850.” When the rent was raised again to $950 during the pandemic, Williams began to push back. “You ain’t been in this house since you bought it to do no work,” Williams told the landlord.
To earn money, Williams works as a construction contractor and does work on homes. Most of Williams’ belongings had been moved out by Tuesday, and the disrepair the home had fallen into was evident. The front steps and porch, made of old, sun-bleached wood, was missing planks in places. Williams points out to Wisconsin Examiner that each of the home’s air vents is severely damaged.
Jagged cracks stream down the walls of the nearly 100-year-old home, and in many places the paint is stained and peeling. Williams says she wasn’t allowed to paint the rooms. The oven is damaged, and mouse droppings litter the pantry shelves, and the inside of the refrigerator. The bathtub needs to be replaced, and exposed wires run all over the house, especially in the basement, where Williams’ family long tracked the source of the mouse problem. No effort has apparently been made by the landlord to fix the pest problems.
Upstairs, where Williams spent most of her time, is similarly grim. A large metal pipe sticks out, hanging down about two feet from the ceiling. Williams says it was hammered through during roof repairs and was never fixed. Floor tiles are loose or absent and the floor is clearly warped and dips in places. The condition of the house made Williams worry for her grandchildren, who regularly visit, she says.
Her requests for the landlord to provide the materials so she could make repairs herself were rejected. Instead, Williams feels that her inquiries to the city about the house’s condition made Alexis retaliate. At one time, Williams says Alexis arrived at her home unannounced, stating that she was owed money. The lack of repairs and the dispute over Williams’ rent payments were deeply concerning to the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU). The union, of which Williams is a member, sent members to Williams’ home to support her during the eviction, and to await the arrival of the sheriffs.
In a Wednesday morning press release, MATU noted that Williams had applied for a rent abatement program under the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) and Milwaukee Community Advocates. On June 1 an inspection was conducted by the DNS. The inspection found that “the landlord needed to conduct repairs by 7/9/2022,” MATU noted in its press release. “And if these repairs were not completed upon subsequent inspection, that Ms. Williams’ rent would be partially abated until the property was in full compliance with the Order to Correct issued by the DNS.”
However, on July 26, Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge David Swanson ruled in favor of a writ of restitution against Williams. MATU fears that by doing so, “Judge Swanson essentially invalidated this entire program, which is designed to given tenants who live in dilapidated rental properties recourse against landlords who refuse to maintain the property as is their responsibility under Wisconsin state statute 704.07(2) and ATCP 123.09(5) (a).” The union called Swanson’s ruling, “a slap in the face to Ms. Williams, and renters across the City of Milwaukee, as it serves to invalidate one of the few programs that have been employed for years by the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Community Advocates to give tenants a chance to try to improve their living conditions.”
Shawanna Lidenberg of Community Advocates expressed shock at the ruling in MATU’s press release. “We’ve used this rent abatement program for hundreds of tenants over the years and have never had a judge ignore it and rule to evict anyway,” said Lindenberg.
Robert Penner, a MATU member, said that the union was aware of Alexis prior to meeting Williams. From 2012-14, years when Williams lived in the home prior to Alexis taking ownership, the home was issued four code violations. Under the ownership of EKCJ LLC, the home has accumulated 17 code violations.
The most recent one, filed on June 21, is logged as “interior of building in disrepair.” It specifically detailed many of the things apparent during the Examiner’s visit including “electrical issues, faucet drop, toilet leaks.” It also referenced, “pipe hanging out from the upstairs ceiling. Tile is coming up off the floor.”
A violation issued on April 26 describes “water damage/mold in the basement under the kitchen and bathroom sink.” Yet another filed on June 23 involved a lead abatement permit. Currently, a proposal is pending before the Common Council which would increase penalties for landlords who don’t correct lead hazards on their properties.
Alexis holds a place on the MATU’s wall of shame, which it reserves for “Milwaukee’s top evicting landlords and their supporters.” Under EKCJ LLC, Alexis owns more than 20 homes throughout Milwaukee’s North Side. “The MATU says that since 2016, Alexis has filed 40 evictions, which are sometimes levied against MATU members who complain to the city about the condition of their homes,” her entry on the wall of shame reads. The wall of shame notes that she also owns SYRCLE Properties LLC and PMA LLC.
Penner calls Alexis a landlord who “doesn’t maintain her properties, operates illegal rooming houses, threatens her tenants with illegal actions like retaliatory evictions.” (A “rooming house” is a home which is rented out by the room, which requires particular permissions from the city.)
According to city records as recent as July 2021, Alexis was described as the owner of several North Side properties with “outstanding building code violation judgments.” Penner stresses that Alexis, a doctor who attaches a Brookfield address to her eviction cases, is “a very wealthy person that takes advantage of vulnerable tenants on the North Side of Milwaukee.” Calling Alexis “a detriment to the community” Penner said, “she makes people’s housing insecure rather than secure, and she doesn’t maintain her properties. So she’s a problem.” Wisconsin Examiner reached out to Alexis, and the Department of Neighborhood Services, and did not receive a response.
Williams feels what she’s experienced is an inexcusable lack of regard from the landlord. “She should be fixing the electricity,” Williams tells Wisconsin Examiner. “She should be fixing the plumbing. She should be fixing her basement. When it rains, water be all over that basement. I done thrown numerous clothes and all the memory away because it gets all wet, moldy, and mildew.”
Breaking into tears, Williams describes the effect the eviction has had on her mental and physical health. “I’m just so deeply hurt because I feel like I’m failing myself, I’m failing my family,” says Williams, who lost one of her daughters to cancer. “If I get put out, what am I going to look like? Like, ‘Wow, what happened to Nanny? Why she ain’t got no house? Why Nanny got to keep coming over here?’” Besides the stress eroding her physical health, Williams has struggled with suicidal thoughts. The pressure is only made bearable by support from her family, community and faith.
Williams will spend a few nights at her sister’s house, and Community Advocates offered to help her after that. Organizing it all, however, has taken a backseat to waiting for the eviction to be completed. “I haven’t called them,” says Williams, “I’ve just been worried about making sure these people don’t come up in here and just take my clothes and stuff. Because that’s really all I have left, is my clothes.” She describes the experience as “devastating,” and demoralizing. “I’ve been trying and trying and trying to work with this lady,” Williams tells Wisconsin Examiner, now crying.
After a few moments the tears subside, and Williams returns to a more determined tone. “The one thing I’m sitting up here doing is thinking about how can I be a part of fixing this problem,” said Williams. She not only blames Alexis as a landlord, but also the judge for the ruling.
“They said it was happening, but I didn’t believe it,” says Williams, “that the landlord can put people’s lives in their hands and do whatever they want to do with it.”
After a long wait, the sheriffs still haven’t arrived. For Williams, though, that offers no solace.
“That just means that they were really busy today,” she says. “So do she have more evictions that they had to get to before me?”
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