Landlord News

Milwaukee County eviction proposal would let tenants reduce rent payments for defects

System - Thursday, July 6, 2017

Tenants in Milwaukee County could reduce their rent payments for specific housing defects — $500 if the only toilet doesn't work for a week — without fear of eviction, as part of a proposal by SupervisorMarina Dimitrijevic.

Although a state law allows rent adjustments for major health and safety concerns, the statute does not spell out the dollar amounts that tenants reasonably could take out of their payments for such defects, Dimitrijevic said. The proposal values a week without hot water at $250 and a week without heat at $600.

Along with filling the gap left by the state law, Dimitrijevic and co-sponsor Supervisor Marcelia Nicholson are asking the County Board to approve spending $100,000 this year and an additional $300,000 in 2018 to establish a housing stabilization fund.

Those dollars would help tenants pay for rent and other expenses to avoid eviction, Dimitrijevic said. The Department of Health and Human Services would be authorized to hire a full-time employee to manage the fund and contact landlords regarding the new fund and withholding ordinance.

The resolution does not specify dollar amounts from the fund that would be distributed to individual tenants facing eviction. Dimitrijevic said the county Housing Division would develop those guidelines.

A similar program in King County in the state of Washington capped such grants at a maximum of $2,500, she said.

Heiner Giese, an attorney representing the Apartment Association of Southeast Wisconsin, said rental property owners would oppose any ordinance allowing tenants to reduce rent payments for defects.

"That would just give tenants another excuse for not paying the rent," Giese said.

On the proposed housing stabilization fund and payments to tenants facing eviction, Giese said the association would prefer the county provide emergency assistance to tenants in the form of vouchers paid directly to property owners.

Dimitrijevic said that pre-eviction spending by the county would reduce overall costs to taxpayers of responding to what she calls an eviction epidemic. The financial impact of the epidemic on the county budget is seen in circuit courts responding to an average of 50 eviction filings each weekday and in homeless shelters that take in the evicted, she said.

Milwaukee County records show the total number of eviction lawsuits filed are on an upward trend in recent years from 12,960 in 2012 to 13,472 in 2016.

Fully 84% of eviction lawsuits were not dismissed in court in 2016 and many involved families, according to Dimitrijevic. As a result, an estimated 32,872 county residents were forced out of residences last year, she said.

"These numbers are just staggering," Dimitrijevic said. "After eviction, tenants have a much harder time finding housing and are much more likely to be evicted again."

"Together, we can help end this cycle, save taxpayer dollars and stabilize families and our community," she said. The proposal has been referred to the County Board's Economic and Community Development Committee this month for a preliminary review.

Madison and a few other state municipalities have adopted ordinances setting how much tenants could cut rent payments for specific housing problems, according to Raphael Ramos, director of the Eviction Defense Project in Milwaukee County for Legal Action of Wisconsin.

While Madison uses a percentage of rent to deduct for each problem, the proposed Milwaukee County ordinance's listing of specific dollar amounts for a kitchen sink that doesn't drain or a missing exterior door will be easier for tenants to use, Ramos said.

A third leg of the proposed strategy calls for the county to contribute $100,000 to Legal Action of Wisconsin for its ongoing Eviction Defense Project two days a week at the courthouse. The project has been going since December with the goal of making sure low-income tenants don't lose their housing unfairly.

The project uses volunteer attorneys to provide free legal aid to the tenants, Ramos said. Attorneys on the agency's staff with expertise in housing law also are available.

Legal Action was awarded a two-year grant of nearly $377,800 from the federally funded Legal Services Corp. to start the project in Milwaukee County.

"Additional support from the county will provide another day or two of representation at the courthouse," Ramos said.

The Apartment Association is opposed to county financial support of that project, Giese said.

-Don Behm , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel