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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Overcast
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Tenant Resource Center scales back services, staff
Funding cuts hit rental assistance group hard
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Konkel: 'We provide essential services.'
Konkel: 'We provide essential services.'

Running a nonprofit is a constant roller-coaster ride. But the going has been especially bumpy this year for the Tenant Resource Center.

The center, which assists 15,000 to 20,000 tenants and landlords a year on such issues as lease rules and eviction procedures, has lost all its state and federal funding. That means its budget for 2012 will drop from $350,000 to $230,000.

As a result, the agency has had to lay off staff and drastically cut back on services. It closed its Milwaukee office Oct. 1 and now only provides services to Dane County residents. Three full-time staff members were eliminated from the Madison office earlier this year, and the group's Housing Help Desk, which distributes information on eviction prevention funds and other emergency financial assistance, has scaled back its hours.

This is all at a time when the need for assistance has increased dramatically due to the economic downturn.

Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, started the Housing Help Desk, located at the Dane County Job Center on Aberg Avenue, as a one-stop shop for job seekers and those needing a roof over their heads. Staff members help clients fill out applications for subsidized housing and provide information on other community resources.

"It's painful to have to cut back hours at the Help Desk," says Konkel, an attorney who served on the Common Council for eight years.

Another casualty of the budget cuts is the Housing Crisis Fund, which provided financial assistance to those facing eviction from their apartments. "We have requests for over one million dollars in eviction prevention every year," says Konkel. "Yes, one million dollars."

The Tenant Resource Center continues to receive funding from the city and county as well as Community Shares of Wisconsin. But the government funding has been mostly flat for 10 years, says Konkel.

One bit of good news: The center's campus outreach in the dorms, which ceased about four years ago, resumed this fall, thanks to funding from Associated Students of Madison. The Tenant Resource Center also has a housing counseling office in the ASM office.

The roots of the Tenant Resource Center date to an organization founded in 1969 known as the Madison Tenant Union.

The MTU was formed to educate the public on laws pertaining to tenants and landlords, and to help organize tenants who were being exploited by landlords. Madison at the time had a rental-relations ordinance that gave tenants the right to form a tenant union if 51% of tenants agreed, says Deborah Percival-Grever, who served as the director of MTU from 1978 through 1983.

"Landlords had to conduct collective bargaining with tenants over issues," says Percival-Grever. But property owners fought against this ordinance, and a sunset clause ended it, she adds. "This was a great assault on the MTU, and the organization decided to separate the tenants'-rights component from the education unit."

In 1980, the Tenant Resource Center was formed as a 501(c)(3) to distribute tenant information and provide education. In the mid-1980s the MTU was phased out.

Percival-Grever, who recently joined the board of the Tenant Resource Center, credits Konkel with expanding the breadth of the group's services. "The organization has accomplished so much under Brenda's leadership," she says. Percival-Grever notes that Konkel started an eviction mediation program in Dane County and created a booklet that identifies laws tenants and landlords should know.

"The TRC can save tenants and landlords a lot of money by helping to interpret the housing laws," Konkel says. "We provide essential services for the entire community."

Mike Barrett, a Madison landlord with rental property on the isthmus, is a big fan of the organization. "The TRC website has helped keep not only me as a landlord, but my tenants out of trouble because there is so much information. The website helps me to maintain good tenant-landlord relations."

A particularly busy time for the center occurs during the mid-August shuffle, when a majority of apartment leases in the city expire and begin. The center continues to field a lot of calls for the next few months as tenants discover issues in their new apartments and have trouble getting their security deposits back from their former landlords.

Of late, the center has heard concern about a state bill that is awaiting Gov. Scott Walker's signature. Once enacted, the bill would strip away city of Madison ordinances that have been passed to protect tenants.

No appointment is needed to visit the Tenant Resource Center at 1202 Williamson St. But with a smaller paid staff, it's getting harder to keep up with demand, says Konkel, who notes that the center is especially in need of volunteers to serve as housing counselors.

A fundraiser for the center is slated for Nov. 11 at the Brink Lounge from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

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