Madison city officials and housing advocates are reeling from a one-two punch delivered by new GOP legislation that threatens to erase several decades worth of renter protections enacted here and Mayor Paul Soglin has come out swinging in response.
Senate Bill 107, introduced on May 26 with the backing of landlords and property owners, as well as the construction and building industry, is on a fast track with a scheduled public hearing and vote by the Housing and Insurance Committee Wednesday. The bill would prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances that limit a residential landlord’s ability to obtain and use personal information from tenants and prospective tenants, including income and source of income, occupation, court records, rental history, and credit information, according to an analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau.
The proposal also would preempt ordinances that restrict the ability of landlords to show and lease apartments while current tenants are living in them.
It appears that an amendment added Tuesday would jettison most other local regulations of landlord-tenant relations as well. State and federal fair housing laws are not affected.
“A huge chunk of affordable housing progress will be wiped out with just this one bill,” says Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center in Madison. “This is a step backwards. This is very, very bad.”
Soglin took time off from dealing with Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts to issue a written statement opposing the measure and criticizing the speed with which Republican lawmakers are pushing it through.
“Decades of thought and study went into Madison’s housing ordinances,” he says in the statement to The Capital Times. “They were crafted after extensive discussion with landlords and tenants. We are surprised that state leaders who profess to trust local government and believe in local control would introduce this measure in the first place, and, secondly, would fail to provide an extensive deliberative process so that cities throughout Wisconsin could discuss it.”
No city wants to discuss it as much as Madison, which has passed more creative protections for renters than perhaps any other place in the state. That may explain why Soglin takes pains to portray the debate as one of local control, not fair housing.
“This matter is bigger than the housing issue. It is a question of who is best to make these decisions — the state or local government,” he says. “If the state enters this area, will it give serious consideration to the thoughts and concerns of those who are right there on the ground?”
Todd Allbough, an aide to Sen. Dale Schultz, the author of the amendment, says that Schultz is interested in public feedback from those right there on the ground. That’s why the senator, says Allbough, “has chosen to do this through a committee process, unlike other issues which were stuck in the budget, in order to offer a public hearing and to allow others to bring their ideas forth.”
Supporters say there are plenty of other sufficient tenant protections in place from state and federal fair housing laws, which prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, familial and marital status, and lawful source of income. They say the bill corrects local interventions that go too far beyond these state and federal protections and interfere with the rights of landlords to screen and control problem renters and to make money on their real estate investments.
“Owners should be able to determine for themselves the level of risk they can tolerate with their properties,” says Nancy Jensen, executive director of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, an association of landlords and property owners that has been lobbying hard and long for the legislation.
“In many places we hold property owners responsible for the criminal activities of their tenants, but we don’t allow them to look at those tenants’ past histories. That doesn’t make sense,” agrees the bill’s lead author, Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere.
Lasee says that when landlords are not free to weed these tenants out, they raise rents on other renters to cover for the losses they suffer as a result of property damage or delinquent rents. “It’s not fair to people who pay their bills on time and live a good life,” he says.
Supporters don’t deny charges that the bill takes special aim at Madison. It was meant to. “We would like to see more standardization across the state rather than an island in the city of Madison in terms of landlord tenant laws,” Jensen says. “Rental property owners have a responsibility to keep their properties safe and well maintained, and these are tools that would bring Madison in step.”
Madison City Attorney Michael May is still looking at the books to figure out which of the city’s housing laws, some of them dating back to the 1990s and even earlier, will be hit hardest.
“I can give you a bunch of them, but I don’t know if we caught everything,” he says.
His job was complicated Tuesday when Schultz suddenly introduced his amendment expanding the original bill to, as May concludes, “gut” nearly every other city and county ordinance pertaining to renters and landlords, except those involving sex offenders and nuisance abatement.
City regulations that would be voided if the bill becomes law include:
— A city ordinance that prevents landlords from showing an apartment for future rental until at least a quarter of the lease is up. A city alder’s proposal to expand that time even further would also be dead in the water. If Madison tenants lose the protection of this ordinance “somebody could move into an apartment August 15 and it could be shown to somebody else and a lease signed by August 16,” May says.
— A city ordinance that prohibits landlords from requiring Social Security numbers in applications; this is one way that landlords can run credit checks but also screen out undocumented immigrants.
— A city ordinance that forbids landlords from denying an application based solely on minimum income requirements or a minimum income-to-rent ratio; landlords typically like to rent to people whose incomes are around three times more than rent.
— An ordinance that prevents landlords from denying housing based on an applicant’s record for convictions older than two years.
— A law that prevents landlords from discriminating against potential tenants or refusing to rent to them because they are on public assistance.
— A city ordinance that requires landlords to give tenants at least a 24-hour notice before showing an apartment.
The bill's critics say the loss of these protections will reverse decades of efforts to help people in Madison afford decent housing and avoid homelessness. They say that the city regulations helped keep the actions of inconsiderate, unscrupulous and even biased property owners who cared more about milking the value of their properties than the rights of their tenants in check, especially important given the high numbers of young student renters here.
Housing advocates reject claims that the protections offered by federal and state fair housing statutes are adequate. At a Monday meeting of Madison’s Affordable Housing Action Alliance, several members recounted horror stories of discrimination against tenants, including cases in which landlords balked at renting to families on public assistance and to a man who had committed a crime 40 years earlier.
But the advocates conceded that there was little they could do to stop the legislation — which caught many of them by surprise — from advancing in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“My head is just spinning,” says coordinator Heidi Wegleitner. “We’ve been working so hard to come up with creative solutions to problems of affordable housing and homelessness, and this will just put up more barriers.”
Housing advocates say the proposal, if approved, would also lead to more polarization in a city already struggling with a growing gap between the poor and the well-to-do. There are about 48,000 rental units in the city, making up about half of the city’s housing stock, according to local estimates.
Advocates predict that bigger landlords in the city with more desirable housing stock will use the screening tools handed to them by the new state law to “keep certain people out,” as Konkel puts it, while smaller landlords with deteriorating properties will accept the tenants nobody else wants.
People typically viewed as problem tenants include minorities with criminal records, undocumented immigrants without Social Security numbers, people on public assistance, and people with disabilities on fixed incomes, say advocates.
“This is undoing years of trying to keep our communities diverse,” Konkel says. “It should be called a segregation bill.”