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Lawmakers block rule to prevent landlords from collecting late fees from tenants during pandemic

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – A legislative committee voted to block an emergency rule designed to temporarily prohibit landlords from collecting late fees from tenants due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules suspended the rule during a meeting Thursday, June 25. The committee is controlled by Republicans and the vote was split along party lines with the GOP acting to block the rule that was put in place in late May. The suspension of the rule takes immediate effect but is not retroactive, meaning landlords can start collecting late fees starting from June 25 but not prior to that when the rule was in place.

Republicans argued the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) did not have the authority to issue the rule and that it put landlords in a difficult position.

“Having some occupants pay their rent and others not pay their rent, to me that just doesn’t seem quite right,” Sen. Duey Stroebel (R – Saukville) said during Thursday’s meeting.

Democrats on the committee said the rule was still needed as people throughout the state continue to struggle to pay rent.

“It was really unfortunate to see that something as common sense to say well for folks that aren’t able to pay that late fees won’t be imposed, was something that became a political touchpoint,” Sen. Chris Larson (D – Milwaukee) told CBS 58 in a phone interview Friday.

GOP members of the committee also said the rule – which was set to expire on August 8 – could potentially do more harm than good as landlords could evict tenants who did not pay rent and try to find new tenants who could.

“I actually see this as a policy that’s going to incentivize more evictions,” Sen. Stroebel said.

But DATCP said the current economic climate makes that a difficult course of action for landlords.

“If someone’s not paying their rent, of course you can evict them,” Lara Sutherlin, DATCP’s Administrator for the Division of Consumer Protection, told CBS 58. “But often times there is someone there in the wings that can take that agreement over – well I don’t know that that is the case with so much unemployment that there is.”

Sutherlin said the agency had been hearing that tenants and landlords had, for the most part, followed the rule and working together on any issues. She added the goal of the emergency rule was to give both tenants and landlords enough time to get assistance from various government programs meant to be a bridge during the early stages of the pandemic. Now the future for tenants is uncertain.

“Our view of things was that we needed more time for this rule to take place so we’ll see what happens,” Sutherlin said.

The Evers administration had placed a moratorium on evictions as part of its Safer at Home order, but that ended once the state Supreme Court blocked the order. Evictions since then have been up about 40 percent statewide. Milwaukee County said this month it would commit $10 million of federal aid to address the issue of evictions.

People who have concerns or are having trouble paying rent can contact DATCP at 1-800-422-7128 to be connected to resources as well as visit the website by clicking here.

People can also learn more about the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program (W.R.A.P.) here.

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