Last month, Milwaukee County landlords filed nearly 1,500 eviction actions, a 26% increase from last year (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). This drastic increase in eviction actions can be attributed to the harsh economic conditions that are hurting renters across the city.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to speak with three women who shared with me their perspectives on eviction in the Near West Side in the era of COVID-19.

Landlord Perspective

I first spoke with Karen Schwenke, a Near West Side landlord. Karen has been a landlord for over 17 years and owns three properties on the West side of Marquette University’s campus. She primarily rents to Marquette students.

When asked about how COVID-19 has impacted her work as a landlord, Karen explained that the virus has “made it harder.” She has a vacancy in one of her properties for the first time in 17 years because there is not much demand in the area where she owns her properties other than students– with only weeks away from the beginning of the Fall Semester, many students do not yet know what their plan for the school year is going to be.

Related: click here to read about Marquette University’s Fall 2020 Recovery Plan

In terms of outlooks for the rest of the year, Karen explained that “we aren’t through this pandemic yet” so it is very difficult to predict what the next few months are going to look like. She did mention, however, that something on her mind right now is figuring out the logistics of how virtual apartment showings will work.

Normally, the Fall season is a busy time for student-based landlords as many students are trying to figure out where they will live the following year. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlikely current tenants will want Karen or prospective tenants touring through their homes. Karen is exploring what a virtual showing process would look like, including pre-recorded videos and in-person calls over Facetime.

Mediate Milwaukee

Next, I spoke with Joanne Lipo Zovic, an attorney at Mediate Milwaukee. Mediate Milwaukee is a mediation service that aims to provide a fair and neutral process where parties have the assistance of a trained mediator to discuss solutions to a disagreement or dispute instead of going to court, and they focus specifically on mediating disagreements between landlords and tenants.

Joanne explained that a mediated outcome may help a tenant to stay in the current housing and to work out a plan to deal with possible arrearages in a way that is workable for both the landlord and the tenant, and may include accessing some of the resources available right now such as the WRAP funds, though these are limited. It requires the parties to focus on how to best serve their shared interests in a workable manner and to find a solution that they can live with, even if it is not ideal. It may also mean that the parties agree to a move out and do so on terms that are again workable for both parties and where an eviction is either not filed, or, if a filed eviction can be dismissed with a mediated agreement, it may help the tenant in locating another housing option. Mediate Milwaukee’s clear preference is to get involved before an eviction is filed because even if dismissed, the mere filing of an eviction can have very damaging effects on a tenant.

To hear Joanne talk more about the mediation process, click the audio link below:

When the pandemic first hit, Mediate Milwaukee saw a large uptick in mediation referrals. Joanne speculated this was because the courts temporarily closed down and cases that were scheduled for March, April and May did not get heard. Today, Mediate Milwaukee is still seeing a significant increase in case volume in response to the ending of the state eviction moratorium and the court beginning to process eviction filings once again.

Another reality of the pandemic was that it affected the economy terribly and tenants all across the country are having difficulties paying rent. They have more stress, less money, and more demands– overall creating an incredibly stressful outcome for everyone involved.

Overall, she found that many landlords have been very reasonable during these difficult times. However, she noted that government intervention is eventually going to be of the necessity because widespread evictions will not be helpful for tenants nor for landlords.

Similar to Karen, Joanne said it is difficult to predict what effects the virus will have over the long-term. She mentioned the rest of the year will depend strongly on the economy and if WRAP (Wisconsin Rent Assistance Program) funding can come through from the federal government. But, if the economics stay as they are, it may take awhile for things to get better.

Joanne recommends landlords and tenants alike visiting the Community Advocates website for information and resources about eviction prevention and housing.

Pictured above: flyers titled “Tenant Tips” in English and Spanish from Community Advocates’ website.

To hear Joanne’s concluding thoughts, click the audio link below:

Legal Action

Finally, I spoke with April Hartman, a lawyer at Legal Action. Legal Action is a law firm that provides free legal services for people who otherwise would not be able to get representation. The firm as a whole can help individuals with a variety of legal struggles, but April specifically works in the community law project. There, she focuses on certain neighborhoods, like the Near West Side, to provide legal services needed in those areas.

Right now, as an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, April noted cases revolving around eviction prevention have for her, personally, “completely taken over all other work,” and she estimates 90% of her time is spent on working cases dealing with eviction prevention.

Right now, all court hearings are done virtually through Zoom, so April has also had to adapt to the additional challenge of preparing clients to testify over the webinar platform. Sometimes, clients do not have the proper technology or space at home to conduct a virtual court hearing, which creates another hurdle for those already struggling with the housing industry.

Unfortunately, April predicts that the COVID-19 financial crisis will continue in the coming months and in the long term, this will mean more evictions. However, if renters are facing eviction and they already have a court date or a termination notice from subsidized housing, they are welcome to call the Legal Action intake phone number at 855-947-2529 to get help with their case. From there, they will be routed to the appropriate attorney or the appropriate advocate for their situation.

For more information on eviction prevention and housing resources, please visit the links below:

Housing Resources for Renters

Housing Resources for Landlords

Special thanks to Karen, Joanne, and April for taking the time to talk about this important issue.

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