Empty apartment

As neighborhoods become less white, evictions increase, often dramatically, a new UW-Madison study has found.

Race is the most important factor in explaining evictions in Dane County, with most non-white neighborhoods showing rates well above the county average, according to a new UW-Madison study.

As neighborhoods become less white, evictions increase, often dramatically, said Revel Sims, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and lead author of the study. Six of the neighborhoods with the most eviction cases also are among the top 10 with the largest percentages of residents of color, the study found.

Revel Sims


“Now, do I think there’s a conspiracy out there by evil, racist landlords to constantly evict residents of color?” Sims said. “No, I don’t think you need that to have racism in housing. But because of the way the housing market is structured, along with discrimination in the labor market and the disproportionate contact people of color have with police and the court system, this can be a result.”

Sims and several students in a graduate-level class analyzed eviction records in Dane County Circuit Court from 2000 through 2015. The study was a partnership between the UW-Madison Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the local nonprofit Tenant Resource Center, which provided guidance and the database of eviction cases.

During the period studied, an average of 2,527 eviction court cases were initiated per year in the county. The number represents filings only — the beginning of the eviction process. The research did not look at how many cases ended in actual evictions. The number of court filings increased slightly from 2000 to 2011, then declined from 2011 to 2015.

Sims and his co-authors suspect two factors are behind the decline: Landlords are choosing to non-renew leases as an alternative to eviction, and tenants are deciding to move out before they are evicted to avoid tarnishing their rental histories.

The average neighborhood had 127 eviction cases during the 16-year time span. Yet as neighborhoods became majority non-white, the number of evictions typically surged toward 1,000 or more, Sims said.

“The idea that the housing system is racist doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “We have a long history of racism in housing in this country. Some of our most important legislation emerged to prevent it. To think it has gone away because of the 1968 Fair Housing Act is ludicrous.”

The researchers did not look at the reasons why landlords initiated eviction filings, such as late rent, behavior problems or suspected criminal activity.

The study found that while there is a correlation between low-income neighborhoods and the number of evictions, the neighborhoods with the lowest median household income are only slightly above the average among all neighborhoods in the county for evictions. This would seem to contradict much of the literature on evictions, Sims said, yet the presence of so many university students in Madison likely throws off the data, he said.

Advantage to landlords

The study says the legal landscape governing landlord-tenant relations and the eviction process has “shifted heavily in favor of landlords.” Eviction proceedings are happening faster, tenants have fewer options for recourse, and municipalities have fewer opportunities for local regulation of the rental market, the study says.

At a campus panel discussion on the report Thursday, Heidi Wegleitner said the state court system’s online database, known as CCAP, is “a huge problem” for many people trying to find housing because landlords often use the information to screen potential tenants. The ramifications can fall hard on people of color because of racial disparities within the criminal justice system, said Wegleitner, a Dane County supervisor and a housing attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin.

Eviction filings can be problematic because they stay in the database even if the case ultimately is thrown out or the tenant and landlord reach a settlement, she said.

“There are many landlords in this community, including our public housing landlords, that will use the mere filing of an eviction, without any further investigation into the merit of that eviction, as an indicator of negative rental history and deny you housing based on that,” she said.

Another panelist said that even if eviction filings were to come off CCAP sooner, private companies archive the information and sell the records back to landlords.

“You can’t put the information back in a bottle,” said Mitch, a clinical associate professor and director of the Neighborhood Law Clinic at UW Law School. He has just the one name.

He said the fix for that is a return to local legislation that prevents a mere eviction allegation from being counted against a potential tenant.

“The problem is that the Legislature has taken away the ability of local municipalities — cities and counties — to pass prohibitions on screening,” he said.

Landlords not involved

During the question-and-answer period, audience member Heiner Giese, an attorney who represents the Milwaukee-based Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, defended landlords, saying the challenges they face often are not well understood.

“This is where I found fault with you guys,” Giese said. “Why didn’t you get more private landlords involved in your study? Why isn’t there a private landlord up on the stage talking about these issues, because part of the problem is that if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to find out if it’s really going to be profitable to rent to low-income tenants in poor neighborhoods. That’s a very valid question.”

Sims said the Madison-based Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin declined an invitation to meet with researchers. Two panelists — Mitch and Rob Dicke, executive director of the Dane County Housing Authority — said that in addition to their day jobs, they are landlords in the private rental market.

The study arrives as many community members are reading “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond.

The book, which tells the story of eight Milwaukee families faced with losing their homes, was selected by UW as this year’s community read through the “Go Big Read” program.

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