“Funeral” mourns loss of renters’ rights in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. – Tenants rights activists held a mock funeral wake at the Brinks Lounge here Feb. 28, giving a toast to the loss of many renters’ rights in the Madison and Dane County area. At the stroke of midnight on March 1, laws went into effect that will strike down many county and municipal ordinances that have strengthened legal protections for those who rent. Many of those laws were the result of years of hard-fought struggles by tenants rights advocates. The new laws were pushed through by Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature. These impose restrictions on cities and counties preventing them from enacting tenants rights ordinances.

Among the rights lost to Madison citizens are:

  • the right to know your landlord’s phone number
  • the right to have an eviction served by a witness (as of March 1 an eviction can be sent by unregistered mail).
  • the right to have pest control without harassment.
  • the right to a maximum one-month deposit for rent. Now landlords can charge whatever they please.In addition:
  • Contrary to the past Madison law landlords can now reject an application without a Social Security number – an obvious attempt to prejudice renting to undocumented citizens.
  • Landlords no longer have to pay interest on security deposits.
  • Landlords can now start showing an apartment for the next year one day after the current tenant moves in.

At the “wake,” mock toasts also went to the death of civic engagement, and the weakened state of the Tenant Resource Center of Madison. The center was honored for its hard work to bring about the laws that have now been struck down by the Republican controlled state legislature and toasters said that the fight must continue.

Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, noted that “tenants still have quite a few rights.” She said landlords could get into trouble because they are being misled as to how many rights tenants have lost, but she warned that other anti-renter bills are in the works.

The mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin, in a May 12, 201,3 Capital Times article, said: “This is a matter of several large out-of-state corporations that own or manage apartment complexes who want a uniform minimum set of standards in Wisconsin, and this will accommodate their needs in regard to lowering the bar.”

The anti-renter bills were given a public hearing with just 24 hours notice. Although the legislation was delayed for one session, many here believe that was done only to give the appearance that the Republicans in control of the legislature were giving consideration to the opposition. The bills had minimum sponsorship, and were passed with no amendments by the opposition Democrats. They were rammed through the legislature in two weeks time and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

A participant at the wake, Tanya Cohen, said, “I was at every hearing. I made certain that they had to look into my eyes when they were considering these laws.”

The Madison City Council is looking for ways to get around the new laws in order to continue to maintain the common sense protections that safeguard tenants in the Madison area. The council unanimously passed a resolution strongly opposing AB 183, one of the bills that restrict the city from establishing ordinances to protect tenants.

One City Council member, Scott Resnick, is attempting to get an agreement from landlords to continue ordinances that currently exist in the City of Madison.

Photo: David Fields/PW



David Fields
David Fields

David Fields worked as an organizer for AFSCME in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Nebraska. He currently lives in Menasha, Wisconsin, and is an activist in Fox Valley. He enjoys photography and song writing.