At Legal Action of Wisconsin, we often see clients who are renting and having trouble with their landlord. Too often, our clients feel intimidated and afraid, and do not know their rights under state law. In this blog series, we are introducing you, the tenant, to your rights at three stages: before you rent, while you rent, and after you move out. This second post is about your rights and your landlord’s responsibilities while you are renting a home.

This blog is for general information only and is not intended to give legal advice. People who cannot afford to hire a private attorney may qualify for free legal help from the resources listed at the end of this post.

1. Repairs: who fixes that?

A landlord has the responsibility to:

  • Fix major problems with the rental unit.
  • Fix any problems in shared areas (hallways between units, for example).
  • Keep the unit livable.
  • If you damage something, you might have to pay to have it repaired. The law says it is up to the landlord to decide if he will make the repairs and charge the tenant, or let the tenant pay to make the repairs.

Tenants are responsible for minor, inexpensive repairs. This includes things like changing lightbulbs and unclogging a sink or toilet.

Your rental agreement might also include an agreement about types of maintenance. Remember, a lease or rental agreement is a legally binding contract. If your lease says you are responsible for shoveling snow, you must make sure the snow gets shoveled.

2. Utilities: who pays for that?

If utilities are not included in the rent, your rental agreement should say what utilities you pay, and what utilities your landlord pays. Your landlord cannot make you pay a water bill three months into your tenancy if you didn’t know before you moved in that you would be paying that bill. If you live in a duplex with only one meter, your landlord must disclose how the bill will be split between tenants. (It is not true that the landlord must always pay the water bill in a duplex.)

If you are renting month to month, your landlord may be able to change the payment rules for utility bills by giving you at least 28 days’ notice.


3. Can my landlord…

…enter my apartment?

You have a right to enjoy your home in peace. Your landlord has the right to enter your home to inspect, repair, or show the unit to possible future tenants, but only with reasonable notice and at reasonable times. Twelve hours is usually considered reasonable notice. In an emergency threatening your health and safety – like a fire or gas leak – your landlord can enter without notice. You can also agree with your landlord that he can enter on shorter notice, for example if you need a repair done. But if your landlord wants to enter your apartment without reasonable notice, or during times that do not seem reasonable to you—like during the night—you have the right to deny that request.

… raise my rent?

If you are a month to month tenant, your landlord has the right to raise your rent with 28 days’ notice (or the notice required in your rental agreement). He cannot raise your rent in retaliation against you for complaining about the property – we’ll say more about that later.

… charge me late fees?

Landlords can charge late fees, but only if you know about them in advance. If you have a written rental agreement, it should say what the late fee is. In a year lease, your landlord cannot raise that fee during your year tenancy. If you are renting month-to-month, your landlord can add or change a late fee, but first he must notify you in writing with at least 28 days’ notice.

4. What are my options if my landlord isn’t doing his job?

You have the right to:

  • Ask your landlord for repairs, in writing. Text messages and emails count. Keep a copy of anything you send your landlord.
  • Call the City of Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services if your landlord doesn’t fix the problem: 414-286-2268.
  • Call Community Advocates for help to legally paying less rent: (414) 449-4777.

If your home is in such bad condition that you are seriously afraid for your family’s health or safety, you may have the right to move out immediately and stop paying rent. An attorney can help you understand the risks and benefits of taking this step.

You do NOT have the right to:

  • Stop paying your rent while you still live in the unit!
  • Pay for repairs and deduct the cost from your rent (unless your landlord agrees in writing first).
  • Move out without telling your landlord.

CAREFUL: If you stop paying your rent but you have not moved, your landlord probably has the right to evict you.

5. What if my landlord gets mad?

It is ILLEGAL for your landlord to terminate your tenancy, raise your rent, or reduce the services he provides to you just because you complained or reported conditions problems to the City or Community Advocates.

HOWEVER, if your landlord has a legitimate reason for evicting you, he will probably win an eviction action against you. If you are behind on your rent or otherwise not 100% in compliance with your lease, you should think carefully before reporting to the City. If there is any legitimate reason the landlord can claim to evict you—even if it feels like it is in retaliation for your complaint to the City—he may still be able to legally evict you. However, your landlord cannot legally evict you in retaliation for complaining to the City if you are otherwise caught up on rent and in compliance with the lease.

If you face an eviction and are a low-income person, free legal help is available. Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project is on-site at the Milwaukee County Courthouse most days to assist tenants with an eviction court date.

Our next post will address different ways the tenant and landlord can end a tenancy, and what happens next.

April Hartman and Elizabeth Pierson are attorneys at Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Community Law Project. Their work includes educating renters about their legal rights and representing them in court. You can contact April and Elizabeth at,, or (414) 278 7722.


  • City of Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services: (414) 286-2268, Click for Action.
  • City inspectors can order landlords to make repairs.
  • Community Advocates: (414) 449-4777,
  • Housing advocates may be able to help you keep your home or find a new one.
  • If the City orders your landlord to make repairs, Community Advocates can help you pay less rent until the repairs are done.
  • Mediate Milwaukee: (414) 939-8800,,
  • Trained mediators can help you and your landlord resolve a dispute, without going to court.
  • Legal Action of Wisconsin: (414) 278-7722,
  • Attorneys provide free advice and/or representation in many housing matters.
  • Legal Action’s Tenant Sourcebook has more information about your rights.
  • Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee: (414) 727-5300,
  • Attorneys provide free advice and/or representation in many housing matters.
  • Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic, (414) 288-6912,
  • Same-day, limited-scope advice and assistance.
  • Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council: (414) 278-1240
  • Help with discrimination claims.
  • Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection: 800-422-7128 / 608-224-5058,
  • State-level enforcement of consumer protection regulations against landlords.

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