The Bottom Line: Critics say bill in Madison hurts low-income renters

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by Bill Walsh

MILWAUKEE -- In many ways, Michelle Swartz is a typical low-income renter, but some say the way she is being thrown out of her apartment is also all too typical. 

Swartz lives on the south side of Milwaukee with her 15-year-old daughter, and pays $585/month in rent for a small two-bedroom aprtment.  But Swartz says even at that price, she has issues with her apartment.  The refrigerator leaks water all over her food, her window sills are rotting wood, there is mold in the bathroom from a leaky toilet.  Swartz says her efforts to get her apartment fixed have been ignored.  "When I tell him there's a problem, he says 'I'll look into it' but he never does," she said.     

Swartz says she's a quiet tenant, and never behind on her rent, but was sent an eviction notice. 
She thinks it was in retailiation for sending her landlord meidcal records after she fell for the third time down her porch steps.  "Last time I fell down them I had a sprained ankle and sprained tendons," Swartz said. 

Mark Silverman is an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, he defends low-income people in housing disputes.  He says every year there are about 12-thousand eviction notices served in Milwaukee County alone.  "The tenant was paying rent, calls the building inspector or complains, and gets an eviction notice... this kind of case is common," Silverman said.

Silverman says the fear of being thrown out, and fear of not being able to find other affordable housing, keeps many renters silent about potential building code violations.  With the volume of housing disputes on his docket, Silverman says job is difficult, and it may soon get more difficult.  Wisconsin Senate Bill 179 has passed both houses in Madison, and is headed to Governor Walker's desk, and he is expected to sign it.  "There are 61 provisions in this bill, when you read through it, you can just see how each one would be beneficial to a landlord," Silverman said.  

According to Silverman, the bill will:

-Permit building or housing code violations to go unreported by landlords if they are unaware of the problems.
-Speed up the eviction trial process. Set a 30-day deadline for a court to hear an eviction trial- not enough time according to Silverman
-Give landlords greater freedom to dispose of evicted tenants' property and tow illegally parked vehicles
-Shift the burden of proof to tenants if bedbugs or other pests infest a building.  If they can't prove they didn't cause the infestation, they get a bill for extermination. 

State Rep. Duey Stroebel (R-60th District) sponsored Senate Bill 179.  He is a landlord himself, but does not agree with critics who say that is a conflict of interest. "This is what people want in their legislature, people who don't follow special interests and know what they are talking about," Stroebel said. 

Rep. Stroebel says this bill will address the criminal element in some rental properties by allowing crime-free lease addendums in Wisconsin.  By putting this kind of clause in a lease, the renter agrees not to allow a crime to happen on that property, or face eviction.  "They provide protections to domestic violence victims, or victims of any crime" Stroebel said. 

Rep. Stroebel admits there are bad landlords in Wisconsin, but does not agree with critics who think Senate Bill 179 would be of any assistance to them, this bill focuses on bad tenants. "What we wanted to do is control costs for all.  There's bad actors out there, as we know, and that ends up costing the consumers." Stroebel said.   

Department of Neighborhood Services online records show that the building Michelle Swartz lives in has more than 35 code violations since 2009.  We reached out to the owner of the building to ask him about those violations, and why he evicted Swartz and her 15-year-old daughter.  He declined comment. 

Swartz was evicted November 12.  She says she was able to find a new place to live, but it is smaller and costs more in rent. 

If you are a low-income renter, and think you are being unjustly evicted, Legal Action of Wisconsin may be able to help.  Their number is 414-278-7722.

This link will help you know your rights as a landlord or renter in Wisconsin:

http://www.badgerlaw.net/Data/DocumentLibrary/Documents/1222180572.65

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