By Eric Timmons
Fifty-seven eviction cases have been filed in La Crosse County since Sept. 1, despite a federal moratorium on evictions and a state funded program that helped hundreds of local households pay their rent until it expired on Nov. 24
Meanwhile, some La Crosse landlords are choosing to keep rental units vacant or not renew leases when they end due to uncertainty over the rental market fueled by the weak economy and the moratorium, which ends Dec. 31. Choosing not to renew a lease is a legal tactic landlords can use to remove tenants without having to attempt an eviction.
Heidi Stach, the mother of a 15-year-old daughter with disabilities, was short on her $850 rent on a La Crosse apartment in April. Her lease was also up but she thought she could renew it to stay in her home. Instead, Reliant Real Estate Services sent her a notice to vacate the property.
“It was devastating. I was confused and crying and felt like I was having a panic attack,” Stach told USA Today recently. “I lost my job and now I had to basically beg someone to let us live somewhere else instead of a homeless shelter.”
Stach complained to Wisconsin’s consumer protection agency, which failed to resolve the dispute, but she eventually found another apartment.
“In the middle of this, it’s a lot to pay for rent plus a new security deposit on such short notice while everyone is freaking out about the pandemic,” Stach said.
The use of non-renewals as a tactic to remove tenants came up as a discussion topic at a recent virtual meeting of an association of landlords, according to Jessica Olson, a member of the La Crosse Common Council and candidate for mayor. Olson attended the meeting as her family owns properties it rents to students in La Crosse.
She has spoken to at least four La Crosse landlords in recent weeks who are choosing to keep units vacant rather than rent them. The landlords are concerned about taking on tenants who may not be able to pay rent and could use the federal moratorium to resist eviction, according to Olson.
“I think what lawmakers underestimated is landlords’ propensity to say I’m not going to take this risk to rent properties under this kind of uncertainty,” she said.
One landlord she knows owns 10 houses and is currently keeping three empty. Olson also said she’s heard of local landlords looking for guidance on how to file evictions after the moratorium ends on Dec 31, while also attempting to recoup unpaid rent and late fees.
In response to the pandemic, the moratorium was put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at the start of September but only barred evictions for non-payment of rent. This means landlords can still evict tenants for suspected criminal activity on their property, or the violation of other aspects of a lease.
To gain protection, the CDC order also requires renters to fill out a form declaring they make less than $99,000 annually, are trying to make partial rent payments, and could face homelessness if evicted. It’s unclear if the moratorium has stopped a significant number of evictions from occurring in La Crosse, but it is clear that eviction filings have been continuing at a steady pace. Public records show that 24 eviction cases were filed in the La Crosse County Circuit Court in November and the first few days of December, plus 21 cases in October and 12 in September.
Critically, the moratorium provided no financial relief to landlords or renters, which means unpaid rent can still build up, leading to fears of a coming surge of evictions in January after the order expires. Some relief for renters was included in the federal CARES Act, passed earlier this year, which funded the Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program. Administered locally by Couleecap, the program provided rental assistance of $1.7 million to 865 households, primarily in La Crosse County, but also in Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties. It ended Nov. 24.
The La Crosse Common Council is expected to approve $125,000 in short-term rental or mortgage assistance next week for residents who are at risk of homelessness or have lost income due to COVID-19. But Olson is among those who remain concerned there will be a local wave of evictions in January. She said she’s pushing for the council to take bolder action to provide more housing options to those at risk of losing their homes.
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