Year after year, Madison rent prices increase at a rate unseen among other major U.S. cities. As prices rise, housing options become increasingly limited, forcing renters to either stay put or face the unforgiving market.
This pressure to obtain lease renewals instills fear in many tenants about challenging landlord mistreatment, allowing landlords to get away with illegal and wrongful action, said Paul Matthews, a member of renters’ rights organization Madison Tenant Power (MTP).
“It’s very scary knowing you can lose your shelter because you stood up for yourself. Even more scary is knowing that you could potentially get your neighbors kicked out because they joined with you to do the right thing,” Matthews said.
Concern over tenant exploitation inspired local renters and members of the Democratic Socialists of America to create MTP. The grassroots organization, formed in 2019, helps tenants assemble to advocate for better living conditions.
MTP took inspiration from the Madison Tenant Union, a key local renters’ rights organization that existed from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
Unexplained rent hikes, repairs and security issues, health concerns and harassment are common abuses Madison residents endure because they are unsure of how to take action, said John Cook, a founding MTP member.
“It started because I was looking for a way I could actually make a difference in people’s lives and help people organize,” Cook told The Daily Cardinal. “There’s so little help, and there’s so much exploitation that happens here.”
Madison’s housing market favors landlords
The nature of Madison’s housing market renders it extremely difficult for residents to stand up against mistreatment without fear of losing their only housing option, according to Matthews. The city’s vacancy rate — the percentage of available housing units that are unoccupied at any given time — sits at around 2.5% as of early 2023, far lower than the 5% vacancy rate the city deems healthy.
Rental and housing markets with low vacancy rates generally favor landlords and increase risks for vulnerable tenants, Matthews said.
“If landlords don’t like what you’re doing, they can get you out on the next lease renewal and they will fill that spot,” Matthews said. “They feel like they have a lot more leverage in situations to make things unfortunate for us who are just trying to have a place to live.”
Landlord retaliation is illegal in Wisconsin. However, Cook said it is extremely hard to prove and therefore provides a real threat to residents who are considering speaking up.
“After the place that they’re in, homelessness is a real fear of the most exploited renters in the city, and that becomes a fear of speaking up, a fear of organizing,” Cook said.
Group seeks community conversations between renters.
The Tenant Resource Center is another major resource for tenants in Madison. The center provides information on laws surrounding tenants’ rights and what landlord actions are prohibited.
While the resource center plays an important role in identifying illegal action, MTP helps tenants address those indiscretions, Cook said.
“What MTP attempts to do through tenant organizing is give people an answer by saying you can change the balance of power between you and your landlord by not just being alone, but by making demands collectively, insisting on them collectively and acting collectively,” Cook said.
MTP’s main function is facilitating tenant organization by visiting neighborhoods and knocking on residents’ doors to help them kickstart the problem-solving process, Matthews said. Connecting with other residents allows them to survey who else feels mistreated and is willing to take action.
“Landlords really don’t like it when we talk to each other. That’s why they discourage common spaces inside the building,” Matthews said. “This is one of the main opportunities for them to start talking about things and how to maybe try and do something about it.”
From there, it’s up to residents to use the organization MTP helped form to demand change. Matthews said forming an alliance with neighbors is the most important step in addressing mistreatment because it reduces the threat of retaliation and shifts power away from landlords.
A Madison tenant who requested to remain anonymous said MTP helped them take action against their landlord in response to multiple years of excessive rent hikes and unresponsive maintenance.
“Madison Tenant Power assisted me every step of the way,” the tenant said. “They suggested I knock on my neighbor's doors and try and combine support for a letter requesting rent negotiation. They briefed me on how best to strategically communicate with our property manager to get them to ultimately negotiate.”
With MTP’s help, the tenant said they were able to negotiate lower rent prices for some units, a significant step toward regaining adequate living conditions.
“Based on further conversations I've had, everyone is experiencing some form of hike, but many are simply desensitized to it,” they said. ”Fighting it at all is probably not even a thought in their minds, and I'd bet many wouldn't even know where to start. That's why we need organizations like Madison Tenant Power.”
A ‘tenant bill of rights’ for more concrete protections
Now meeting every other week in-person and virtually, MTP’s membership has grown significantly since its inception.
Currently, MTP is developing a “Tenant Bill of Rights,” which they are hoping to propose to Madison Common Council members next fall. Matthews, a lead project organizer, said the initiative would establish more concrete and enforceable tenant rights.
“When people feel like they have more clear and certain rights, they are going to feel more empowered to take that next step of organizing against their landlord,” Matthews said.
To begin this process, MTP identified potential laws that could pass without being blocked by state law. They then moved on to “power mapping,” identifying points of power that are most likely to enact the proposed changes. They chose the Common Council as their target because they believe alders would consider the group’s proposed measures.
With few tenant protections currently outlined in local and state law, MTP hopes the Tenant Bill of Rights will establish more concrete guidelines for tenant treatment.
“I would love to see people get organized and get militant,” Cook said. “I would love to see a more militant culture of renting in Madison, where people are willing to push through what their rights are and to push for more rights as well.”