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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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New Wisconsin landlord laws wipe out hard-fought victories for Madison renters
Madison's ordinance protecting individuals with conviction records from housing discrimination dates to 1999.
Madison's ordinance protecting individuals with conviction records from housing discrimination dates to 1999.

There are a lot of renters in Madison. One out of every two people, according to estimates from housing advocates and city officials. That's a higher rental rate than even Milwaukee, where fewer than 40% of residents are apartment dwellers, according to 2011 Census data (PDF).

Over the last couple of decades, Madison and Dane County put in place a slew of protections to protect that large population of tenants. For the most part, these protections don't exist elsewhere in the state.

"Once you get out of Milwaukee and Madison ... the majority of people aren't concerned with these [tenant] rules," says David Sparer, an attorney who has represented tenants in landlord disputes for 35 years and served on city housing committees over the last 15 years. "But for the greater Madison area, these are important things."

Sparer is one of the many local tenant advocates who have watched in dismay as the Republican majority in the state Legislature has dismantled these protections over the last few years, preempting local laws.

Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign SB 179, which supporters say was needed to balance the legal relationship between landlords and tenants and prevent conflict.

Housing advocates contend that the bill, along with two laws passed in 2011, wipes out many of the city and county's tenant protections.

"This latest [bill] probably has the most devastating effect of them all, particularly because it wipes out over 25 different Madison laws," says Brenda Konkel, who has advocated for tenant rights as executive director of the Tenant Resource Center since 1995.

"They basically took our rights away as a local community to decide what's best for us because they think they can do it better."

Among its provisions, SB 179 gives landlords greater freedom to dispose of evicted tenants' property and tow illegally parked vehicles. It also requires tenants to pay for bedbug damages by default, and permits building or housing code violations to go unreported by landlords if they are unaware of the problems.

State lawmakers and supporters of state housing laws who sponsored the first round of changes in 2011 say they were necessary to standardize rental law throughout the state.

Nancy Jensen, executive director of the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, a regional landlord association that lobbied in favor of the bill and previous legislation, did not respond to requests for comment, but has supported preemption in the past.

Wisconsin Act 108 allows landlords to discriminate against prospective renters based on information like credit or criminal history, and to require security deposits greater than one month's rent. Act 143 prevents cities, counties, towns and villages from blocking evictions, and says that landlords are not required to disclose building or housing code violations unless they have "actual knowledge" of them.

Madison's ordinance protecting individuals with conviction records from housing discrimination dates to 1999 and was one of the first issues Konkel worked on as a tenant advocate. It was hard to watch state lawmakers take that all away, says Konkel.

"It was 15 years of advocacy down the drain," she says. "We worked hard to put in a rule that was fair for landlords and tenants that worked for the community."

At the same time, Konkel empathizes with local landlords. "I feel sorry for landlords," Konkel says. "It's hard to keep up with all the laws and all the changes."

Madison and Dane County lobbied against the 2011 laws, the most recent Senate bill, and its companion (AB 183) in the Assembly, with the city's policies impacted in multiple ways.

According to Assistant City Attorney Steve Brist, the city plans to defend some of its ordinances by evoking "home rule," or the idea that the state is infringing on matters delegated to local government.

He says that the city will first determine if it can challenge the state housing laws in "areas where the Legislature has not said that cities are prohibited from enacting legislation."

Brist says that Act 108 may be difficult to contest because the law specifically prohibits local jurisdictions from enacting laws that restrict landlords on certain issues. SB 179 does as well.

But Brist says that it may be possible to challenge Act 143, because of the absence of such preemptive language. Additionally, some of the provisions do not apply to Madison, he says, which could allow the city to argue for "opting out."

Sparer says the state laws change the tenor of interactions between tenants and landlords in Madison.

"It's going to be hard for tenants to have a home rather than a place that they temporarily rent from the landlord, without thinking that their landlords will take advantage of them," Sparer says.

Laws that give landlords greater discretion to turn away prospective renters are most damaging to those who live on the margins, Konkel adds.

"We have to tell people over and over that they no longer have the rights they used to have," Konkel says. "We're telling people bad news when they're already struggling."

Margaret Watson, chief operating officer for Steve Brown Apartments, the large management company with a significant number of downtown and campus-area holdings, declined to comment on the law changes and their impacts. The company did not lobby in favor of SB 179, but registered in support of the bill that became Act 108.

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