A “for rent” sign is seen outside of a home on Griffin Street in Milwaukee on June 29, 2021. A range of factors stack the odds in Wisconsin landlords’ favor when disputes with tenants arise. Those include state laws that limit local governments’ ability to regulate rental properties. (Isaac Wasserman / Wisconsin Watch)
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In November 2021, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced a lawsuit against Berrada Properties that alleged the company, which owns 8,000 rental units (most in Milwaukee and Racine), has serially violated Wisconsin landlord-tenant law.

The alleged violations included allowing illegal provisions in leases; illegally charging tenants late rent and court fees; and engaging in illegal security deposit deduction practices.

A spokesman for Berrada Properties told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the company  “vehemently denies any assertion of wrongdoing.”

But the lawsuit’s allegations beg the question: If true, why are such violations allowed to accumulate?

Milwaukee’s efforts are stymied by a combination of factors, including lack of funding that delays city actions on possible violations, local housing experts say. Additional factors: the state Legislature’s intentional weakening of local governments’ abilities to regulate rentals and the reluctance of tenants to complain because of fears of retaliation.

“These landlords only do what they are allowed to do,” said Robert Penner, an organizer with the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. “There are supposed to be regulations in place that hold them accountable.”

The role of Department of Neighborhood Services

The first thing Milwaukeeans are told to do when they have a safety issue in a rental unit is to reach out to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS. The department is responsible for enforcing building, zoning, fire, environmental, property maintenance and other ordinances.

DNS closed most of the 37,393 filed to the department in 2022,  said Tanz Rome, finance and administration manager. In February, 879 complaints remained pending across all sections of the department, she said.

How DNS processes complaints

Delays vary by section and non-emergency complaints can take six to eight weeks for inspection, she said. But the department handles any life safety complaints within 24 hours, she said.

In a meeting in October, DNS Commissioner Erica Roberts blamed budget constraints, staff turnover and a scarcity of contractors as the source of delays in approving permit applications, conducting demolitions and completing inspections. 

“They receive a very low percentage of the city’s budget,” Penner said. “And even when they can go out, the most they can do is deem a home unsafe, and tenants have to move or give the property owner a fine.”

A DNS inspector may issue a written order, which has a specific time frame indicated for compliance. 

Tenants voice fears

Though illegal under state law, Penner said many tenants are afraid to contact DNS because they fear landlords will retaliate.

Although state law says no landlord can retaliate after a tenant has filed a complaint, it assigns no entity to enforce the law.

Rome said, however, that city ordinance protects tenants from landlords who retaliate.

A tenant can file a complaint with DNS, which can cite a property owner for retaliation. 

Lax landlords

Raphael Ramos, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, said many non-compliant landlords depend on tenants not reporting issues to avoid having to deal with habitability concerns.

“Code enforcement by agencies like the Department of Neighborhood Services is generally precipitated by tenant complaints,” Ramos said. “Absent a complaint, we have seen landlords sit passively and refuse to make repairs, knowing that not much will happen unless a tenant reports the issue to DNS.”

Both the city and Milwaukee County have taken some measures to put tenant protections in place.

The city has established lead certification for rental units and expanded accessibility accommodation funds. The county has established a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction, expanded tenant-landlord mediation services and increased funding for housing-first policy, which works to house people in need then triage other needs to keep them housed.

Legislative constraints

But over the years, regulation has been constrained by the state Legislature, some of whose members, including leadership, own rental properties.

In 2009, the city created a residential rental certificate ordinance, which required apartments located mainly near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, on Milwaukee’s North Side, to be certified by city building inspectors before they can be rented.

It was nixed in 2015 by Assembly Bill 568, which limits how local municipalities can regulate rental units.

Lawmakers have also changed legislation surrounding eviction procedures. Recent legislation has expedited the eviction process and given landlords the right to get rid of a tenant’s property.

Lawmakers have limited local government’s say in how far back a landlord can go in checking prospective tenants’ financial, housing and criminal histories; limited tenants’ ability to withhold rent; and made it easier for a landlord to shift the costs of exterminating bed bugs or other pests to the tenant.

Penner says these types of changes are the reason so many Milwaukee residents feel powerless.

“Residents need to know that they have some type of power over their living situation, and right now there is no institution that gives tenants power,” he said.

What can residents do?

Mediate Wisconsin offers landlord-tenant mediation to those willing to communicate their needs to avoid eviction or resolve other issues.

Ramos stressed the importance of tenets understanding their rights.

“In addition to documenting the conditions at issue, complaints to DNS can provide some protection to tenants by creating a presumption of retaliation if a landlord responds inappropriately, like by trying to evict,” he said.

Even without a field DNS complaint, the law still allows tenants to engage in rent abatement, a reduction of rent paid due to material health or safety-related concerns, he said.

While it’s up to tenants to carry out rent abatement, DNS and Community Advocates, a Milwaukee-based social service nonprofit, can help tenants understand the risks and benefits of the practice. 

“Regardless, a tenant cannot be forcibly removed from a property without notice and going through court. You cannot be evicted without due process,” Ramos said.

Above all, Ramos said, existing programs can help tenants in need.

Keep good records

Nick Toman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, said tenants should keep all documentation of all interactions with their landlords.

“Get it in writing,” he said. “Landlords are required to provide dates they are going to fix an issue, and you can be entitled to the monetary loss resulting from an issue.”

No matter how bad things get, he said, withholding rent without going through proper channels is likely to end badly.

For more information

Milwaukee tenants can call or visit the Rental Housing Resource Center (414-895-7368) to get help or ask questions. 

Wisconsinites statewide can call 2-1-1 for information about housing and other issues, or contact Legal Action of Wisconsin (855-947-2529).A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

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PrincessSafiya Byers / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

PrincessSafiya Byers is a Report for America corp member working as a staff reporter at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service where she covers health, minority businesses, faith, jobs, housing and transportation. A proud Milwaukee native, Byers is a 2020 graduate of Marquette University. She has had internships with the Milwaukee Community Journal, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Byers has also co-produced a community podcast and written for community newsletters.