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What will change for tenants and historic properties under new bill headed to Scott Walker's desk?

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Since 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature has passed more than 100 changes to landlord-tenant law. Tuesday, it passed a few more, along with more lenient regulations for repairs on historic properties.

The state Senate passed Assembly Bill 771, 18-14, sending it to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk to be signed into law.

Changes to landlord-tenant law

On the Senate floor, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, spoke against the bill, calling it “a landlord's bill completely” and said it “makes it easier for landlords to evict low-income people.”

Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, denied that the bill would increase evictions, and said the it provides “a more defined process as to how inspections can occur.”

The broad bill limits how municipalities can perform building inspections and the amount of time a court can delay eviction proceedings in certain circumstances. Republicans have said the bill ensures municipalities don’t use inspections as a “money-making opportunity” and protects landlords from unnecessary fees.

Chris Mokler, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Apartment Association, said the bill does not take away any rights from tenants and improves relationships by allowing electronic communications between tenants and landlords. It also adds more regulations for emotional support animals, which some tenants may take advantage of, Mokler said. 

"We're just trying to make this a level playing field for everyone," Mokler said. 

Heiner Giese, attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, said the bill eases the strict language of eviction notices, which will streamline eviction court. For example, if a landlord includes a late fee in an eviction notice, it would likely be thrown out of court because it includes more than the rent owed. 

"A lot of landlords, especially the mom and pop landlords, were getting tripped up in eviction court," Giese said. 

Other bills passed in recent years have sped up the eviction process, made it easier to evict tenants and allowed landlords greater power to look into a potential tenant’s credit and criminal histories. The laws have also pulled back local control, so cities like Madison with traditionally strong tenant protections have less power to dictate landlord requirements.

Advocates unhappy

Tenant advocates were saddened that AB771 was added to the list of recent changes.

Mitch, an associate professor at UW-Madison and director of the Neighborhood Law Clinic who goes by just that name, was particularly upset that the bill limits property inspections.

“When a tragedy occurs — like a bridge collapsing — an investigation is ordered and everyone asks, 'How did something like this happen?' … So, the next time a fire or tragedy renders a home uninhabitable, people will again ask, 'How did something like this happen?' The answer will be that our elected officials removed rental protections that kept our families safe,” he wrote in an email.

Advocates for domestic violence victims opposed AB771 because of a provision they say could unintentionally force victims to return to their abusers. Chase Tarrier, public policy coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, called the passage of the bill “a regrettable step backwards for the safety and well-being of domestic violence victims in our state.”

“The changes included in this lengthy bill (which was never passed out of committee in the Senate) are wide ranging, hastily written and will have a direct, negative impact on survivor safety,” he wrote in an email.

Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, said the spate of law changes have stripped away rights from tenants, but also made business more confusing for landlords.

“It’s hard for anyone to keep up and understand what the laws are anymore with all their varying effective dates, dependent upon when they signed their lease. It's a trap for landlords who don't work with attorneys,” she wrote.

She noted that the new legislation means a lot more work for TRC, where they must adjust their training guide, retrain staff and volunteers, update a website and brochures. And she doesn’t expect this to be the last adjustment.

“We'll be spending the next two years waiting for the next changes,” she said.

Historic preservation changes

The bill also gives owners of historic properties more flexibility when making repairs and renovations.

“When it comes to historic preservation, we’re enabling and ensuring that a landlord, if they have a building that’s in a designated historic area, that they don't have to use historic materials to fix a building,” Craig said.

Using historic materials can be costly and Craig said giving property owners this option will make rental housing more affordable. However, local historic preservationists say that it will jeopardize the integrity of statewide preservation efforts.

"The bill will damage historic preservation around the state; how great the damage will be remains to be seen," Madison's Landmarks Commission Chair Stu Levitan said. 

Under the bill, owners would be allowed to use similar looking materials as long as an “ordinary observer” would not be able to tell a substantial difference when viewing the property from the center of a street next to the property.

Kurt Stege, president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a blog post after the companion bill was introduced that it will lead to more vinyl siding, colored concrete and plastic shutters instead of clapboard, granite and limestone, and wood shutters.

“All of these differences in materials may be quite obvious when viewing a building from a sidewalk or driveway, especially if the observer is reasonably familiar with historic structures or general construction practices,” Stege said in the post.

City of Madison Preservation Planner Amy Scanlon said she has not yet worked through the details with the city attorney of how the bill would affect Madison. However, the timing of the bill aligns with the city’s efforts to review outdated historic ordinances.

“Luckily, the Historic Preservation Ordinance is in the process of being revised so we can accommodate any statute-related changes with that effort,” Scanlon said.