While sponsors of Republican legislation argue it would promote affordable housing and create a fair rental housing market, others say it would tilt power more toward landlords and limit municipal powers.
Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, and Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, are sponsoring bills that focus on tenant-landlord rights and development while also limiting municipal powers.
At a Wednesday meeting of the Senate's Insurance, Housing and Trade Committee, Lasee said the tenant-landlord bill is an effort to “clean up” previous state laws to “continue to have a vibrant rental market here with affordable housing that treats both tenants and landlords fairly.”
“The intent of the bill is to provide affordable, safe, quality housing for tenants and to do it in the most cost-effective way for landlords,” Brooks added.
In the past six years, a series of state changes have given landlords more opportunity to reject possible tenants and evict current renters. Senate Bill 639 would add to that shift in power, tenant rights advocates said.
Vicky Selkowe, representing Legal Action of Wisconsin, said the bill is an “affront to all tenants struggling to avoid homelessness throughout our state.”
“Numerous provisions in this bill will make it easier for landlords to evict tenants and when low-income and struggling families are evicted, they become homeless or at risk of homelessness,” Selkowe said.
Under the bill, dismissed small claims cases, including evictions, would stay in the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access database — CCAP — for 10 years. The provision is in conflict with a recommendation from the WCCA Oversight Committee that argued there is "little public value and much potential harm” to individuals by keeping their dismissed cases publicly available and suggested a two-year period.
“What you are doing is not only putting victims of domestic violence at risk but lots of other tenants at risk of remaining homeless or becoming homeless because they can’t get a landlord to rent to them,” Tenant Resource Center director Brenda Konkel said.
The bill would also create a higher standard for tenants trying to get a hearing in small claims court by requiring them to provide “valid legal grounds” instead of just contesting an eviction filing. It also raises the amount landlords can charge for a credit check and allows landlords who do their own maintenance to charge tenants for that work.
Additionally, under the bill, tenants who qualify for emergency assistance could only stay in their residence for five days and only if they apply prior to an eviction being authorized. End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin Public Policy Coordinator Chase Terrier said this could be potentially harmful for victims of domestic violence who need to find alternate housing.
"Emergency assistance is a critical tool for victims when they’re facing an eviction," Terrier said.
It also creates limitations and additional requirements for tenants with emotional support animals.
Regulating municipal powers
The bill would prohibit municipalities from regularly inspecting property, require mail notice to landlords before filing charges related to maintenance issues like snow shoveling and require municipalities to allow private property owners to use materials that have a “substantially similar appearance” to original material when making changes to landmarks or properties in historic districts.
Under the bill, rental properties would only be inspected if there is a complaint. Other types of properties, including single-family homes and condominiums, could still be inspected at regular intervals, according to the bill.
Lasee said the provision is an effort to ensure municipalities are not using inspections as a “money making opportunity.”
The League of Wisconsin Municipalities opposes the bill and assistant director Curt Witynski highlighted the changes to regular inspections as a top concern.
“We think that this language, deleting that opportunity to establish regular programs really just protects irresponsible landlords and jeopardizes the health and safety of students, families and other individuals, vulnerable individuals who are fearful of bringing a complaint because they will be evicted from their apartment,” Witynski said.
The bill would also prohibit municipalities from regulating the aesthetics of the interiors of homes, limit rental inspection fees to the actual costs of performing the inspection and prohibit landlord registration fees outside of Milwaukee.
A second bill, Senate Bill 640, would increase fees charged to those displaced by condemnation proceedings and exempt properties that retain at least 90 percent of storm water from any new or additional storm water service charges.
It would also prohibit municipalities from creating or enforcing ordinances related to storm water management unless in strict conformance to uniform statewide standards and from stopping people from working on private construction projects on weekends.
“Local control is best, however, when it comes to development, uniformity and having crystal clear direction is essential,” Brooks said.
The bill would also create a workforce housing tax increment financing (TIF) district.
Village of Windsor President Bob Wipperfurth argued that the bill, as it is currently written, strips power from the local elected officials.
“This shifts the playing field too far to the development side,” Wipperfurth said.