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Legal Aid Society on front lines defending Milwaukee evictions

This Aug. 2020 photo shows Wyconda Clayton looking over a memorial honoring the sudden passing of three family members just months apart this year in Milwaukee. Her mother Eula Clayton died April 14, God-sister Tarnisha Young died May 20, and her oldest sister Sarah Clayton died June 23. Clyton is fighting an eviction notice. (Pat A. Robinson via AP)

Wyconda Clayton looks over a memorial honoring the sudden passing of three family members just months apart this year in Milwaukee. Clayton is fighting an eviction notice. (Pat A. Robinson via AP)

By MARY HENNIGAN and ABIGAIL ZIMMARDI
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (AP) — As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Milwaukee residents Estella Johnson and her husband were struggling with reduced work hours and were fighting an eviction order from a landlord she said doesn’t perform repairs and who changed the locks without notifying tenants.

Johnson couldn’t get into her apartment for five days and could not access her mail for more than a month because of the mailbox changes. When she finally got her mail, she discovered a warning of an eviction.

“By the time I got my five-day notice from them, it was past the five days,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s landlord, Berrada Properties, is one of the leading filers of evictions in Milwaukee. The city had one of the highest rates of evictions nationwide before the pandemic, with about 15 evictions every day in 2016, according to Eviction Lab data.

This year, Berrada led the way: Berrada Properties and its 18 affiliates were responsible for 17% of eviction filings in Milwaukee city and county since March 27, 2020, or 487 of the 2,929 filings during that period.

Wisconsin was one of the first states to lift its eviction moratorium on May 26. Milwaukee city and county tenants saw a surge in eviction filings — nearly 1,370 cases in July, up from just 15 in April. With the increased eviction filings, Milwaukee housing advocates have seen their workload triple compared to pre-pandemic eviction cases.

“What you’re seeing right now is two crises colliding,” Brad Paul, executive director of Wisconsin Community Action Program said. “You’re seeing the pre-existing housing crisis and COVID. It’s a lethal combination.”

Johnson’s eviction is a symptom of COVID-19 fallout, as well as of longstanding income inequality and systemic racism in Milwaukee. The Black median household income in Milwaukee has decreased by 30% since 1979, according to a 2020 study on racial inequality in the city from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. About 40% of African-American renters in the four-county Milwaukee metro area spent more than half of their incomes on rent, compared to 21% of white households, according to a 2018 study from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan, statewide research organization.

“You have poor and low income people who really care, who are still struggling (and) have to work two or three jobs just to pay rent,” said Jacqueleen Clark, an organizer with the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. “And with the pandemic now and no one’s working at full hours, it has become difficult.”

Another problem facing many Wisconsin residents is the state’s overburdened unemployment benefits claims system, which has led many residents to wait weeks or months for checks.

Wisconsin Watch reported in late June that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has paid about 2.5 million of more than 3.4 million weekly unemployment claims it received between March 15 and June 20. The agency has denied 409,000 claims and has yet to process 509,000 others.

The unprocessed claims represent about 151,000 people, Wisconsin Watch reported. The agency was in the process of adding more staff to deal with the backlogged claims.

Race plays a role in neighborhood composition and evictions, said Jason Geils, a Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union organizer. “So what you have is years of chronic redlining, racist superstructure here that continually repeats itself,” Geils said. “So, a lot of these things are class based, but they’re also so interwoven with racial politics.”

Redlining is the illegal practice of denying a renter a loan on the basis of race who would otherwise be eligible for the loan, according to a Federal Reserve Fair Housing Act. “Racist superstructure” describes embedded racism in governmental policies and corporate business practices, such job and housing discrimination.

Milwaukee has long been the nation’s most segregated metropolitan area, which is marked by the lowest rate of Black suburbanization in the U.S., according to a 2020 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of county renters were considered “rent-burdened,” meaning they spent at least 30% of their income on rent, according to the 2018 study.

Johnson, who is African-American, said one example of her poor experience at the apartment involves lack of response from the maintenance staff, who she said treats her rudely and disregards legitimate complaints. She and her husband have complained for two years about a broken dishwasher, a missing front door on the building and other serious maintenance issues. She finally withheld their $745 July rent.

Multiple attempts by telephone and email to reach Berrada Properties for comment were not successful. The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism data analysis of Milwaukee city and county court records found Berrada Properties and its 18 affiliates were responsible for 11% of all 19,423 Milwaukee city and county eviction filings between Jan. 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020.

Pete Koneazny, chief staff attorney with Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, a group that provides legal representation for tenants facing evictions, has focused on Berrada cases for about a year. He described Berrada’s typical presence in court as “aggressive” and “sue first, talk later.”

His organization has been inundated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Koneazny said. In 2019, Milwaukee Legal Aid typically received eight to 10 eviction intakes per week, Koneazny said. After the eviction moratorium lifted, Legal Aid attorneys began to receive 25 to 30 weekly eviction intakes.

One of the nearly 1,500 people facing an eviction in June was Wyconda Clayton, who lives with her 20-year-old daughter in a townhouse owned by Business Ventures Investments. She is facing her fifth eviction with the company since 2018, according to an analysis of online court data. Her most recent eviction began when her home care service job was impacted by the pandemic and her mother’s illness.

To provide in-home care for her ailing mother, Clayton had to cut back on hours, she said. She has two clients and works 17 hours a week, making around $300 biweekly, which is not sufficient to cover $600 rent and food costs, she said.

Her mother died in April and Clayton began working a new job in May. She said she tried to pay her landlord $1,200, a portion of her previously owed back rent, but her landlord would not accept less than the full amount of $4,200, Clayton said.

“We couldn’t go out of our house and everything was shut down, so what do you want me to do?” Clayton said. “I can’t make the government send me my money just to pay y’all.”

She was formally evicted Aug. 7.

Clayton said she has until November to move out of her apartment and is struggling to find housing for her and her daughter.

Clayton did not have a lawyer for her eviction case. Instead, she got help from the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. MATU Organizers Jacqueleen Clark and Jason Geils created the group in March to organize tenants to protect their rights.

The Howard Center analysis of court records showed 21% of eviction cases in Milwaukee city and county had an attorney attached to the case, much higher than a review of other states. Georgia, for example, had about 1% attorney representation.

Although inundated with requests, Koneazny of Milwaukee Legal Aid estimated his group and Legal Action of Wisconsin represent about 5% of eviction cases, leaving the vast majority of Milwaukee residents without representation.

One unexpected benefit of the pandemic has been improved attendance by tenants at video conference court hearings on evictions, said Judge William Pocan, one of the deputy Chief Judges for Milwaukee county.

“People are now appearing, because they can do so from their home, and people with a smartphone can appear easily through Zoom,” Pocan told Wisconsin Watch in an interview. “It has allowed more people to contest things than before, which we weren’t expecting.”

Even if it doesn’t result in being forced out of a home, just filing an eviction can hurt tenants, said Nick Toman, a Milwaukee Legal Aid staff attorney. Their credit is damaged and their choices are limited, forcing many to end up in properties with building code issues or to pay additional fees to rent.

“Once that first eviction gets put on somebody’s name, they’re kind of in the eviction track with future landlords,” Toman said. “And they have a hard time getting out of it, so it’s more likely they will get an eviction filed again in the future.”

Clark, a former Berrada Properties tenant, said she got involved with MATU after her own eviction last March. She was ultimately evicted for not making her rent payment after losing her job, she said.

Clark had Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee representing her at the eviction hearing, but she lost the case. Afterward, she struggled to find housing and was homeless for about a year.

Having an eviction on her record added to the hardship of finding quality housing.

“Now, finding housing because of the eviction, I had to pay double security,” Clark said. “Who can pay double security?”

Wisconsin Watch staff contributed to this report. Hennigan and Zimmardi reported for the University of Arkansas.

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