Thursday, May 9, 2013

Controversial Anti-tenant Bill Rammed Through Legislative Process

Controversial anti-tenants’ rights bill AB 183 was approved in a party-line vote at an Executive Session of the Assembly Housing and Real Estate Committee today. It will be debated on the floor of the Assembly on Tuesday, May 14, just over two weeks after it was first circulated for sponsors on April 29. Republicans added an amendment making several changes to the bill on Tuesday, May 7. At the hearing today, Representative Janet Bewley (D 74th district) requested more time to review both the bill and the amendment: “I protest that acting on the amendment and the bill now is not up to our standards.”

Tenants’ rights advocates have expressed concern about the speed with which the bill is being moved through the legislative process. “Even if you don’t care about the fifty-plus tenant-landlord law changes in AB 183,” said former alder and longtime housing rights activist Brenda Konkel, “you should care about the shame that the Assembly Republicans, the Wisconsin Realtors’ Association, and the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin are making out of our democracy.”

AB 183 would abrogate many tenant-landlord laws in municipalities, including over twenty Madison laws. On Wednesday, May 7, Madison City Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing AB 183. Speaking against AB 183, Mayor Paul Soglin said that the proposed legislation would undermine efforts to improve Madison neighborhoods, and he questioned the idea that tenant-landlord law should be uniform across the state: “Cities where renters make up fifty percent of the population are different than other areas [of Wisconsin].”

If AB 183 becomes law, it will make numerous changes to current tenant-landlord law at the state and municipal levels:

-It eliminates or alters laws that protect tenants’ property, making it easier for landlords to tow a renter’s vehicle, dispose of property left behind in an eviction, and take extra fees and fines out of security deposits.

-It legalizes so-called “crime-free” lease provisions prohibited by current law. Such clauses may discourage tenants from calling the police in emergencies and may be used by landlords to punish tenants for crimes committed against them or crimes that have nothing to do with them. An amendment to the bill stipulates that such provisions should not violate Wisconsin laws protecting victims of stalking and domestic abuse, but the language introduced by the amendment does not make exceptions for other kinds of crime. Advocates for victims of domestic violence continue to express concerns that the amendment is inadequate to protect victims and would have unintended consequences if it becomes law in its current form.

-It attempts to speed up the eviction process, by requiring courts to rule on the issue of possession of the property (i.e. whether the tenant must vacate the property) within 30 days of the return date of the summons, permitting county governments to allow summons by mail in eviction actions, and requiring the court to render judgment and issue a writ of restitution immediately upon a determination in favor of the Plaintiff (landlord). It also creates a bait and switch rule that would allow a landlord to continue pursuing an eviction even after receiving rent (or any other kind of payment) from a tenant.

-It makes it easier for landlords to charge tenants for pest control, even in situations when it is unclear who caused the infestation.

If it is signed into law, AB 183 will be the third anti-tenants’ rights law since Republicans took over the state government in 2010. 2011 Wis. Act 108 severely restricted municipal control over tenant-landlord law and nullified decades worth of pro-tenant laws in Madison, Dane County, and Fitchburg. In 2012, another anti-tenants’ rights bill, SB 466 (now 2011 Wisc. Act 143), was fast-tracked through the legislature in a similar fashion. One of the last bills to be passed during a marathon 33-hour Assembly session in March, 2012, it was signed into law just over one month after being introduced.

“The bill’s authors say that this law is intended simply to modernize existing law,” said Colin Gillis, an organizer for the Wisconsin Alliance for Tenants’ Rights, “but their actions tell a different story. Large property management companies and organizations that represent their interests are taking advantage of a Republican-controlled state legislature to rewrite tenant-landlord law in Wisconsin, and they are hoping nobody will notice.”