As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third month, Wisconsin consumer protection officials have banned late fees and penalties for missed rent payments.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Affairs announced Wednesday that it has approved an emergency rule prohibiting landlords from charging late fees for 90 days after the end of the public health emergency, which is set to expire May 26 but faces a legal challenge from Republican lawmakers.
The agency said job losses, layoffs and furloughs resulting from the COVID-19 crisis and a statewide stay-home order imposed March 25 have made it “extremely difficult” for many people to pay rent on time.
The ban took effect April 25 but would not apply to late fees charged earlier in April, said agency spokeswoman Ti Gauger. It would remain in effect for 90 days should the Supreme Court strike down Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order.
Evers in March suspended evictions and foreclosures for 60 days, though neither that order nor the ban on late fees relieves tenants of their financial obligations.
Chris Mokler, director of legislative affairs and COVID-19 Task Force chairman for the Wisconsin Apartment Association, said his group is concerned that some tenants may use the ban as an excuse to not pay rent.
But despite a handful of calls for rent strikes, data show the vast majority of tenants paid rent in April.
Among those living in professionally managed apartments, 91.5% of tenants had paid at least some rent by April 26, according to a survey by the National Multifamily Housing Council. That’s only slightly lower than in April 2019, although the data show a much sharper drop-off in the share of tenants who paid rent during the first week.
In Wisconsin, Mokler said WAA surveys indicate most landlords collected at least 80% of rent due in April.
“While that sounds good, it really is not as that does not always cover all the expenses and loan payments,” Mokler said, adding that landlords may also face losses because they are unable to lease vacant apartments.
Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, said it’s encouraging that tenants are still trying to meet their obligations but warned many are using savings or going into debt to do so. The organization is calling on Congress to enact a renter assistance program.
Council spokesman Colin Dunn said it’s unclear what impact government relief programs, including federal stimulus and unemployment payments, would have on May rent payments.
“There’s no doubt there are serious challenges,” he said.
DATCP has scheduled a public hearing on the emergency rule for May 21. Comments can also be submitted in writing. While the rule is already in effect, Gauger said the agency’s policy board could reject or modify it based on public feedback.
Consumers with questions or issues related to landlord-tenant agreements can contact DATCP’s consumer hotline, 1-800-422-7128 or DATCPHotline@wisconsin.gov, or file a complaint online at www.datcp.wi.gov.
Dane County residents can also get help through the Tenant Resource Center.
According to DATCP, the agency’s consumer protection division received 835 inquiries relating to landlord-tenant issues between March 1 and April 24, an increase of just 3% over the same time period in 2019.
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