It’s been a busy month for Legal Action of Wisconsin, which offers free legal help to low-income tenants who are threatened with eviction.
Ever since the end of a statewide moratorium on evictions on May 26, attorneys at the nonprofit firm have been hit with a surge of calls for assistance.
Christine Donahoe, housing law priority coordinator at Legal Action, recently calculated that the number of evictions filed in Wisconsin in the first 12 business days in June was 30% higher than the figure for the same period last year. CCAP records show 2,252 cases were filed under the Small Claims-Evictions class code from May 27 through June 19.
“We expect that to continue to increase, especially as people fall behind in July and as the federal moratorium lifts on July 25,” Donahoe said.
Wisconsin’s 60-day moratorium, imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, suspended all evictions and foreclosures save in cases in which there was threat of harm. Its lifting on May 26 in Milwaukee County brought out a group of landlords so eager to file that they stood in line at the courthouse even though, technically, the moratorium was still in place.
The moratorium did not mean that all eviction filings had ceased. Courts were generally still holding hearings during the 60-day period to decide if there was threat of harm.
For tenants who were still faced with eviction proceedings, it was up the courts to decide if the proceedings should still go forward, Donahoe said. And even when cases were eventually dismissed, there were serious consequences for tenants.
“Even if that eviction were dismissed, it would stay on the tenant’s record, and there would be an easily searchable, freely accessible record on CCAP that an eviction had been filed,” Donahoe said. “That could seriously harm that tenant’s ability to find housing for two years into the future.”
The Wisconsin Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, two groups that represent hundreds of property owners in Wisconsin, are also urging members to think of evictions.
Chris Mokler, legislative director of the Wisconsin Apartment Association, said he and his colleagues are recommending landlords defer evictions for tenants who are waiting for unemployment or stimulus payments.
“Right from the start, we’ve been telling landlords across Wisconsin to find a way to work with their tenants because it’s a community problem that’s affecting everybody,” Mokler said. “Just running and evicting somebody isn’t necessarily going to get you paid.”
Mokler estimated between 8% and 10% of landlords in Wisconsin have tenants who either have COVID-19 or are out of work because of the virus. He said the association is advising landlords to talk to their tenants and set up payment plans listing specific amounts and dates for payments and possibly requiring proof that tenants have applied for unemployment.
“Landlords don’t necessarily want to evict people, but if they’re not getting paid, they can’t pay their mortgage, utilities or repairs,” Mokler said. “At the end of the day, about nine cents out of every dollar that a landlord collects actually goes in their pocket.”
The association is also reminding property owners that an eviction isn’t necessarily a quick way to get paid. Mokler said he’s heard evictions are taking about three weeks to get resolved in some counties and as long as three to six months in others.
“It’s just counterproductive,” Mokler said.
Meanwhile, circuit courts are still figuring out how they should proceed when a separate, federal moratorium expires. This moratorium, which covers properties where rents are paid in part with federal aid, remains in effect for renters who have lost income amid the pandemic. About 28% of rental units nationwide fall under the federal moratorium, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
In May, Legal Action asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to impose a statewide rule that would require landlords to file a certification affirming that their properties were not benefitting from federal assistance. In doing so, the group’s primary goal was to bring the moratorium to the attention of landlords and preserve tenant rights.
The Supreme Court, though, declined to adopt the rule, leaving it up to individual courts to put their own policies in place.
Milwaukee County’s small-claims court has responded by adopting its own requirement that landlords file affidavits certifying their properties aren’t covered by the federal moratorium. However, Donahoe predicts most Wisconsin courts won’t require certification.
Regardless of what requirements are in place, questions remain about how eviction hearings will actually happen while courts are operating under the threat of COVID-19. Some courts are holding hearings using Zoom online videoconferencing, a system that excludes tenants who have no access to Internet service or a computer. Others are scheduling consecutive in-person hearings and forcing tenants to risk their health to appear.
“There are some real due process questions,” Donahoe said. “We have yet to see exactly how that’s going to play out, but we know it’s causing a lot of concern for our clients.” Follow @“WLJreporter”