By Peter Gorski
The balance of power between landlords and renters has long been skewed toward the landlord but a budding tenant organizing effort is underway in La Crosse to push back.
Coulee Tenants United, or CTU, is a small group of volunteers working to educate and assist tenants in standing up for themselves and getting a fair shake (scroll to the bottom of this article for contact details).
The group has been distributing information on tenants rights and has helped a few tenants navigate landlord conflicts.
La Crosse has several nonprofits that help with housing assistance, and CTU hopes to fill in the gaps and help out in conflicts where these other organizations might have their hands tied due to legal and organizational constraints.
With the Wisconsin supreme court recently overturning the governor’s safer at home order and the federal government taking next to no action to continue mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the months ahead look to be a tumultuous time.
It’s difficult to know how things will play out, but one thing is certain: renters are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
Even before the pandemic hit, America was in the midst of a housing crisis. Rental prices have been rising across the country while income has been relatively stagnant for decades. Investors buy up properties and sit on them as investments, while many struggle to find housing that they can afford.
For the approximately 1 in 3 Americans who rent, finding housing stability is becoming increasingly difficult. In Wisconsin, a tangle of rental regulations seem designed to favor landlords, and to trap the most vulnerable tenants.
For example, if a landlord files eviction paperwork on a tenant, even if the eviction attempt is deemed unlawful and the tenant stays in that housing unit, the record for that eviction will follow that tenant for 2-10 years.
La Crosse has a very low housing vacancy rate at around 3.4% compared to the national rate which has hovered between 6.5-7%. This means rentals are hard to come by, which gives landlords power to pick and choose tenants as they have people lined up to fill units. Checking eviction records just takes a simple 30 second search, and with a surplus or renters available landlords have no reason to take a chance on someone with a record.
An eviction record hangs over the heads of all renters, and a landlord can give them this scarlet letter for no reason at all if they are willing to pay the $100 filing fee (check out Matthew Desmond’s fantastic book on evictions and renting in Milwaukee for a deeper analysis).
If the eviction is unlawful the record can be removed, but the tenant would have to take the case all the way to court to get a judgement for it, which is a difficult and time consuming process. It also means that the most vulnerable tenants tend to be pushed into the hands of the most predatory landlords, who have few qualms about taking tenants to court to recover relatively small sums from renters (try searching Wisconsin public court records using the name of local rental companies to see for yourself how prevalent this is in La Crosse).
Another regular abuse of power is the stealing of security deposits. Security deposits exist to pay for damages a tenant causes during their stay. But the system is slanted toward the landlord here as well. Security deposits are required to be paid up front upon moving in. A landlord only has to provide a tenant with an itemized list of claimed damages to keep the money, with no proof required. The burden of documentation when moving in and out all falls on the tenant. Moving is already a stressful and tumultuous time, and documenting the unit conditions is another responsibility added to tenants’ often full workloads.
Once the landlord has this money the only way a tenant can get it back is to take the landlord to court. Legally the tenant has a decent chance of winning, with a California study showing that over 70% of tenants won deposit cases that made their way to a court judgement. But unfortunately most renters are too busy working to survive, and often not well informed of their rights (the Tenant Resource Center in Madison has great information for renters in Wisconsin).
However, in many cities across the U.S., tenants are fighting back. In New York, tenants kicked-off what has been described as the biggest rent strike since the 1930s on May 1 (activists in Wisconsin have recently been converging on this Facebook page to discuss organizing renters in the state).
Tenants in Wisconsin have rights, including the right to demand repairs to essential portions of housing and the right to notice of any entry by landlords or property managers, but it can be very difficult to make demands of your landlord. The task can be made less difficult, when tenants get together, and form a union to help each other navigate interpersonal conflicts with their landlords and the labyrinthine legal system. Tenants usually lack deep pockets, but one key strength they have is numbers. In short, tenants outnumber the landlords.
Tenant organizing can include a broad range of tactics, including helping document move-in and move-out conditions, navigating legal codes, assisting in negotiations with landlords, and most importantly connecting tenants facing similar issues with a landlord. One tenant facing an issue doesn’t have much bargaining power, but a full building of tenants bringing an issue to their landlord have a lot more leverage.
With the federal coronavirus relief bill paying trillions of dollars to corporations to stabilize the economy, surely we can afford more direct relief for renters. What could be more destabilizing than kicking millions of residents out of housing at the same time? If we want our economy to maintain any semblance of balance we need to ensure that working people can continue to afford basic human necessities.
Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (or ALICE), is a category created to describe the growing segment of our population who are working, often full-time, but do not make enough money to survive.
A 2018 United Way report on ALICE shows that over half of La Crosse county residents live below the ALICE line. These are people who were already struggling to pay rent and keep up with their other bills, before the pandemic unleashed a massive wave of unemployment.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has banned evictions for 60 days starting on March 27, but there has been no effort to give renters monetary relief. That means that if renters have been out of work and unable to pay their rent, landlords can still go after them on day 61 for every dollar of rent they missed during the pandemic and subsequent quarantine. With La Crosse’s low vacancy rate, renters are headed for an uncertain future.
Coulee Tenants United is attempting to build an organization that can fight back against abuses by landlords, build solidarity among renters, and give voice to those who often are not heard in our society. But we can only build power if people get involved. If you’re a renter in La Crosse, join us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know anyone having issues with their landlord or housing, they can email CTU or call 608-305-4645.
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Feature photo credit: Andre Carrotflower CC BY-SA 4.0