A Milwaukee pilot program that has provided legal representation to tenants facing eviction would go statewide under draft legislation that Democratic lawmakers began circulating last week to recruit cosponsors.
The proposal is part of a package of nearly two dozen draft bills that senators and representatives have drawn up to establish stronger protections for tenants in Wisconsin.
The collection of bills “aims to ease the burden on evicted households in Wisconsin, as well as giving tenants additional tools that will aid them in maintaining a place to live,” said Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday, Oct. 18.
Addressing the problems that can lead renters to losing their homes has broader implications, said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee).
“Housing insecurity is more often the cause of unemployment than the other way around,” Larson said. Lacking a stable residence can lead to a person losing a job, which can make it harder for them to find housing, perpetuating a cycle.
“Having an eviction on your record — good luck getting a job, getting credit or even getting an apartment,” Larson said.
Clancy said two of the draft bills seek to bolster a tenant’s right to legal representation in eviction proceedings. One bill would enshrine that right statewide and require a notice of the right in rental agreements, legal eviction notices and publications related to small claims court. The other would establish a state grant program to lawyers providing legal services in eviction cases for tenants with incomes up to 200% percent of the federal poverty guideline.
Milwaukee County enacted a right to counsel for county residents facing eviction in 2021, including funding for legal services from the county United Way organization. Clancy, who is also a Milwaukee County Board member and helped lead the passage of the county’s right to counsel program, said it has been successful in preventing evictions but also in saving money that would have been spent on eviction efforts.
“Even setting aside the idea that we can reduce trauma and harm based on eviction, it was incredibly efficient,” Clancy said, adding that it’s the right thing to do “to help people before they lose their housing, rather than struggling to get them into shelter and then precarious housing afterwards.”
Tenants’ rights “are not just about legal technicalities,” said Malinda Eskra, the managing attorney of Legal Action of Wisconsin. The agency as well as the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee represent low-income renters facing eviction and in other disputes with landlords.
If the proposals in the lawmakers’ package are enacted, “they will ensure that our clients receive fairness,” Eskra said.
She described a case in which a client with four children faced eviction after the woman’s partner, who had been physically abusing her, stole the woman’s savings, leaving her with no resources to pay her rent.
Legal Action was able to negotiate with the landlord to establish a payment plan with the tenant while allowing her and her children to remain in their home, Eskra said. The eviction court record was sealed so that it could not be used against the woman in a future search for shelter, she added.
“Today, the vast majority of tenants facing eviction in Wisconsin do so without the benefit of legal counsel,” Eskra said — leaving them “to navigate a complex legal system without a full understanding of their rights or how to enforce them.”
Another proposal would allow local municipalities to impose shorter operating seasons for short-term rental operators, which typically cater to travelers.
“Short term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO reduce affordable housing availability for local working families,” said Rep. Lori Palmeri (D-Oshkosh).
A Wisconsin law enacted in 2017 blocked local municipalities from setting a rental season shorter than 180 days a year for such short-term rentals. That has taken properties off the housing market, exacerbating housing shortages and driving up rental prices, Palmeri and other lawmakers state in their memo seeking cosponsors.
The draft proposal would repeal that restriction on local governments and allow them to set rental seasons of 90 days a year or less. “This may discourage large-scale rental companies from buying up most of an area’s housing stock and lead to more available housing, lower home prices, and more affordable rents,” the cosponsorship memo states.
“Let’s allow communities to determine their local needs for addressing rental availability, such as seasonal permits for 60 or 90 days,” Palmeri said.
Another proposal would require landlords who do not plan to renew a tenant’s lease to give 60 days’ notice. “Thirty days in this recent rental market is not enough time to find suitable housing,” Palmeri said. The bill also would require a landlord to show “good cause” in terminating a lease.
An additional draft bill would direct the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to seek federal approval to provide recipients of BadgerCare (Wisconsin’s term for Medicaid) help in their search for housing, including financing deposit and other payments, the first month’s rent and one-time moving costs.
Stable housing is “a key determinant of health,” Palmeri said. “Patients who experience homelessness are more likely to seek emergency room care, have longer hospital stays, and more frequent readmissions.”
Other proposals would repeal state laws that prevent local communities from imposing an eviction moratorium or from requiring routine rental property inspections.
Rep. Darrin Madison (D-Milwaukee) described an apartment complex in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale where chemicals known to cause cancer were found in the air at 10 times the level considered safe and an investigative series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that found electrical fires were five times more common in the city’s most impoverished zip code.
Those cases, he said, illustrate how state laws have restricted local inspection programs, contributing to harm to tenants. “These communities need the ability to create their own rental inspection programs,” Madison said.
Clancy said the bills “are not messaging bills, they are not abstract.” Rather, he said, they are based on data and “lived experience of people that have been evicted in the past,” as well as from providers of legal assistance who represent tenants in disputes with landlords.
Larson observed that in the last 10 or more years, the Legislature’s Republican majority has passed laws “that stacked the deck against renters [and] in favor of landlords.” The proposals the Democrats are circulating are “the first steps to bring balance to the landlord-tenant relationship in Wisconsin,” he added.
While no Republicans have signed on to any of the proposals yet, Clancy said he was hopeful that bipartisan opportunities would emerge.
“These are clearly pressing issues that all Wisconsinites care about and that affect all Wisconsinites,” Clancy said. “And I’m confident that we can work together on those.”
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