City News

As state GOP strips tenant right ordinances, Madison officials look to incentivize best practices by landlords

The city of Madison is turning toward creating a “best practice” for landlords as the state legislature overrides a slew of ordinances that previously allowed certain rights and protections to be required for tenants by law.

Image By: Ben Golden

Photo evidence for a docked security deposit, notice of building violations and updated fire sprinkler systems—these are just a few of dozens of rights and protections students are no longer guaranteed by law in Madison.

Madison landlords were previously required to follow such standards through city ordinances. But over the last several years, changes by Republican lawmakers have increasingly limited the ability for local officials to regulate landlords.

Roughly 100 changes have been made to local and state rental laws between 2011 and 2016, according to city officials. Ald. Zach Wood of District 8, which encompasses the campus area, said these frequent changes make it a norm for students to not know what their rights as renters are.

“If you were here as a freshman in 2013, it’s a different ballgame now [as a senior in 2017] than it was when you first signed a lease,” Wood said.

Addressing a power struggle between the city and state has been a common theme in the state capital. Wood said dealing with the state on housing regulations has been one of the most consuming parts of his work in local government.

“While protecting tenant rights has always been a priority of the City of Madison, it’s been really disappointing over the last few years,” Wood said. “Throughout my first term, everything we’ve done and some of what my predecessors have done has been eroded by Republicans of the state, which has been tough.”

One pivotal change for downtown renters took place in 2011. The city had previously required landlords to provide proof of damage when they took money from a security deposit. But under under Wis. Stat. 66.0104, local officials can no longer legally enforce the ordinance.

For Wood, this is one of the most concerning examples of state law preempting city ordinances.

“There are property owners and landlords who have friends in the state legislature and would like to take more out of security deposits,” Wood said, after recalling a year during his time as a UW-Madison student when he fought a security deposit deduction that didn’t seem right.

Numerous other changes deregulating standards for landlords were passed that same year under Act 108, many of them expanding the legal basis on which rental applicants could be rejected. Under the GOP legislation, city officials can no longer prohibit landlords from using criminal convictions, credit scores, refusal to provide a social security number and a person’s rental history to reject a housing applicant.

A law passed last year made it easier for landlords to kick renters out. Under Act 176, landlords can issue a no-cure lease violation that might lead to eviction, such as property damage, even after it is remedied by a renter.

“That’s really difficult—especially for students—because if you get evicted mid-semester, what are you going to do?” Wood said.

As more ordinances have become unenforceable under state law, city officials are getting creative on ways to reinforce them. A city council subcommittee is currently working on a “best practice” program that would incentivize Madison landlords to uphold tenant rights and protections that aren’t legally required anymore.

Under the program, landlords who follow a set of best practice standards outlined by the city’s Tenant and Landlord Issues Committee could be rewarded with some kind of city certification or be put onto a “gold-star” list.

Best practices could include things like requiring photo evidence of security deposit deductions and setting a limit on the dollar amount that can be required for a security deposit.

The program, first introduced in 2015, is still in the works. Wood said until it is implemented, students should be especially mindful of their rights as Madison tenants. He suggests always reading up on rights, getting agreements in writing and not being afraid to question a landlord.

“Most students don’t read up on rights and so far too many people just accept whatever happens as normal,” Wood said. “Don’t be afraid to question—if it doesn’t seem right, there’s a chance it isn’t.”

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