In the city of Madison, maintenance and repair issues threaten the right to housing security and safety.
Financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the Madison housing crisis. The number of unhoused individuals in Madison increased to 630 in 2020, compared to 578 in 2019. According to the City of Madison’s 2020 Equity Analysis, “housing is treated as a commodity, not a right.” The pandemic caused drastic changes in lifestyle and socioeconomic status, welcoming a new way of thinking about the housing crisis: housing is a human rights issue.
The Neighborhood Law Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School provides direct representation and advocacy on rental housing and employment law matters. One of the major issues that the clinic focuses on is unsafe rental housing. When a lessor fails to fix a code violation, outlined by the city building inspector, the tenant may request rent abatement. If granted, rent abatement temporarily reduces the amount of rent that is owed while the unit is not up to code.
Ultimately, it gives power to lessees that allows them to take action to improve the safety of the home they are renting.
Rent abatement is a complicated process with many hurdles. Many — not all — cities and states have their own abatement laws. The city of Madison has unique laws that permit Madison residents and their elected representatives to have some control over the rent abatement procedures within the city.
When a Madison-based lessor fails to make repairs by the specific due date outlined on an official notice, a renter becomes eligible to apply for abatement. Renters are then required to pay a $10 application fee.
The pandemic sparked a push for change. In 2020, the Landlord and Tenant Issues Committee asked Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway to waive the fee during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following year, the request was granted for those who applied for rent abatement before June 30, 2021. There is no fee in place today, according to the Madison City Building Inspector.
While the waiving of this fee demonstrates Madison’s progressivity, many other steps in the rent abatement process are outdated. In addition to the $10 fee, a tenant who applies for abatement must also attend a hearing where the Hearing Examiner listens to both the lessor and the tenant. The Hearing Examiner then decides whether or not the tenant has proven they are entitled to abatement, and if so, they determine the rent reduction amount. This process can take up to 20 days. According to the City of Madison Building Inspection, the abatement hearings occur on Tuesday nights, and exceptions are only made on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, someone with a recurring conflict would have to prove that an exception is necessary to be able to attend their hearing. If an applicant is able to schedule a hearing but does not show up, there is no opportunity to reschedule. This disproportionately impacts busy, single parents and others who may be unable to attend their hearings due to exogenous factors.
Revel Sims, an Assistant Professor of Planning and Landscape Architecture at UW-Madison who has experience researching social justice and urban planning, explained that racial disparities in housing issues are extremely apparent in Madison.
“The more white [the neighborhoods] get, the fewer [eviction] hearings there are,” Sims said.
Sims’ 2015 study on evictions in Dane County found a high positive correlation between non-white communities and eviction filings. Madison is a historically white and segregated city, and Sims’ research shows that there is a disproportionate impact on communities of color who often face compounding housing issues, finding that the top six block groups (neighborhoods) experiencing evictions were among those with the highest proportion of minority residents.
Madison’s 2020 Equity Analysis addressed that: “White supremacy systems limit options for others (where to live, where they would even potentially be accepted as a tenant).”
Students, another group known to struggle with obtaining rent abatement, are often unaware of the resources available to them that would provide information on what constitutes eligibility for rent abatement.
Jane Smith, a former client of the Neighborhood Law Clinic who requested to be anonymous, is a student who struggled to receive rent abatement. Smith did not even know this resource was available to them in their off-campus apartment.
“Had I not gone to the Tenant Resource Center, we probably wouldn’t have gotten abatement,” they said in an interview.
Housing providers are known to take students less seriously. Smith’s property manager told them they should be grateful they had a remodeled apartment and was adamant that their lease was not violated.
“It’s so difficult to work with the property management as students,” Smith explained.
They hope changes can be made to both Madison’s rent abatement resources and policies to assist students in an area they may not be familiar with. When asked what should change, Smith explained that there should be “better awareness and resources for the students.”
Smith underscored that many other students had similar issues but were unable to figure out that there were resources available to help them.
Though there are many issues related to rent abatement in Madison, Sims explained that the pandemic provided an opportunity for serious changes in Madison’s housing.
“There’s an opening for reimagining the way that we think about housing now that was different than just a few years ago,” Sims said. He recommends three paths to change the housing system in Madison.
Although the City of Madison is home to the Tenant Resource Center, there is no online standardized database on rent or rental housing in Madison. Sims’ first suggestion was to create a public database that allows people to access information about ownership of properties, rental prices and other details that would be helpful for Madison’s residents. He argued in favor of making information available in order to evaluate how practices may be used disproportionately in some neighborhoods.
Sims explained that “having some sort of understanding of who owns a neighborhood, who owns the housing stock and how much housing is owned by particular people or organizations is really significant.”
Sims believes there are many benefits to people having access to information in their neighborhood, including helping to ensure routine inspections of units are provided. A standardized database would allow prospective lessees to access important information about rental property safety and ownership. Furthermore, it can help identify specific building and management practices that contribute to unsafe properties. By having access to a standardized database, people could see how much money is being charged to other renters, which can prevent them from being taken advantage of.
According to Sims, the highest eviction rates lie on the North and South sides of Madison. In parts of these areas, there is a lower quality housing stock that is relatively undervalued. Combined with low vacancy rates city-wide, this can encourage lessors to take advantage of people within these neighborhoods through increased insecurity of tenure and poor maintenance.
Lessees face a fear of retaliation from their lessors if they call the city building inspector or file complaints. If a lessee makes a complaint, and an inspection is required, the lessor property management will be made aware. This can upset some lessors, who instead of responding by being thankful for the opportunity to fix an issue before it gets worse, may instead attempt to illegally retaliate against their renters.
Sims’ second suggestion was to require regular routine inspections, as opposed to waiting for lessees to file complaints. This would create a level of discipline for all lessors to keep units up to date. It helps lessees avoid potentially triggering a lessor's illegal retaliation if they find out a complaint was filed to the city as well.
There is a specific fear for the more than 75,000 undocumented immigrants residing in Wisconsin. Additionally, more than 75,000 undocumented immigrants residing in Wisconsin are subject to fear that if they report building issues, their lessors may threaten their abilities to remain in the United States and call immigration officials.
Sims addressed the fact that current eviction proceedings in Madison are mostly done through small claims court. Housing cases in small claims courts are civil, meaning that residents lack the right to an attorney. People who cannot afford an attorney are immediately put at a disadvantage, often lacking familiarity with the laws that apply to their case as well as the ability to properly articulate their arguments. Sims argued that conflict over housing is a human rights issue and should not be handled in a small claims court and without counsel.
“I find it shocking and difficult to digest that the way that we handle conflicts over shelter, so really a conflict over a human right is in small claims court,” he explained.
Several Madison city entities have recently acknowledged these local housing issues. The Madison Common Council and the Landlord and Tenant Issues Committee met last week with agendas including publicizing rent abatement and reviewing abatement ordinance changes. Discussion included a proposed amendment to current law that would make rent abatement eligibility automatic. In the past, renters had to each request and attend a hearing to get abatement, but with this new law, abatement will be awarded promptly unless a hearing or appeal is requested. The new law removes the practical and legal burden of proving whether or not rent abatement should be awarded to renters.
The Common Council approved the amendment on April 19, 2022. The law will go into effect once Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway signs off on it.
Housing is a human rights issue that affects all people and disproportionately impacts certain groups such as people of color and students. Madison’s elected officials are currently working towards resolving housing disparities, proving that voters have the power to elect representatives who will pass laws that protect everyone’s right to adequate housing in this country. The newly adjusted rent abatement policy found in Ch 32.04 “seeks to identify inequitable barriers in the process and propose solutions.”
Madison’s recent changes to implement anti-discriminatory housing laws will shrink inequities in the city’s apartment repair process.
Resources for tenants: