« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Tenants vs. Landlords

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  Bill sounds like a lousy tenant. He’s described as a “poor housekeeper”. That’s a polite way of saying he’s a slob. I’ve seen a photograph of his apartment. He has a garbage bag full of trash in his front hallway. There seems to be random junk on top of his refrigerator. Clothing is flung over a closet door instead of being hung up.

Admittedly, the apartment itself is also a dump. Floor tiles are missing. The ceiling plaster is rotted away and it leaks. The front doorframe is damaged and doesn’t lock correctly. The woman down the hall has mental problems and called the police on Bill – thinking he was armed with a gun. (In fact he was asleep; police forced their way into the apartment and then left.)

The story of Bill and his ratty apartment appears in this week’s City Pages newspaper as part of their cover story about a landlord licensing proposal in Wausau. The city is considering whether landlords would have to pay a fee and have mandatory inspections of their properties. Indeed there are multiple code violations at this apartment. Bill claims he’s worried about being thrown out if he complains to the city.

There’s a debate about who has the upper hand in tenant-landlord relations. There shouldn’t be – it’s the tenants have an overwhelming, and in many cases unfair, advantage. Eviction law overwhelmingly favors renters. Anyone who rents property can tell you how time consuming and expensive an evection is… to the point that many tolerate bad tenants because the process is so onerous.

In Wisconsin a landlord can give a 5-day ‘order to pay’ notice if the rent is past due, or a 14-day ‘order to vacate’ if they want a bad tenant out. The days don’t mean anything. If the tenant refuses to go the landlord has to begin the eviction process. It will take at least 3 to 4 months to get a court date. Once in court, the tenant can argue that the eviction is in retaliation for code and property violations. That will lead the court to order an inspection of the property – and it could take another one or two months for the city inspector to show up.  The results of that inspection would have to go back to the court where the tenant could dispute the findings; another hearing would be scheduled.  Even if the tenant ultimately loses the eviction case, he’d still be served with a formal eviction notice from the court, with another 30-days notice. If the tenant still doesn’t leave the sheriffs department would show up to throw them out and haul their stuff to the curb. That usually happens when deputies can spare the manpower, and usually involves another 5-days notice. So the process takes at least 4 to 6 months, and perhaps up to a year. And if time runs out on a tenant during the winter, they can stay where they are until April since Wisconsin doesn’t allow evictions during the winter months. During that time, a bad tenant will probably become worse. And most tenants simply refuse to pay their rent during the eviction process.

During all of this, the landlord isn’t allowed to change the lock, turn off the heat, shut off the water or electric or retaliate against the bad-renter. The fines for forcing a renter out are substantial. And the renter can get an opportunistic lawyer and sue.

Against this backdrop Wausau is deciding whether to move forward with a landlord licensing program. It’s a bad idea – just another level of regulations. (The City Pages article points out that LaCrosse has licensed landlords for 20 years, and they still have a problem with renting that takes place outside the system.)

Here’s what I think is true about Wausau’s rental market:

Certain neighborhoods have too many poorly maintained rental properties. The city should step up inspections. The cost of certain highway sculpture could fund at least two additional building inspectors.

The city also has too many bad tenants.

Bad properties and bad renters have a way of finding each other.

If, by chance, a good renter finds themselves at a bad property they need to communicate with the landlord. Getting the city involved is the next step. The city had a seldom used rent-abatement process where a renter can withhold payment if there are code violations. It can't be used when the rent is in arrears. And all the while, the tenant should remember that the words that strike fear into any landlord’s heart are “I’m not paying the rent until certain things are fixed... go ahead and try to evict me. 

Chris Conley