By Princess Safiya Byers Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published May 06, 2023 at 10:01 AM Photography: Sue Vliet

In November 2021, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced a lawsuit against Berrada Properties that alleged the company, which owns 8,000 rental units (most in Milwaukee and Racine), has serially violated Wisconsin landlord-tenant law.

The alleged violations included allowing illegal provisions in leases, illegally charging tenants late rent and court fees, and engaging in illegal security deposit deduction practices.

A spokesman for Berrada Properties told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the company "vehemently denies any assertion of wrongdoing."

But the lawsuit’s allegations beg the question: If true, why are such violations allowed to accumulate?

The answer, according to local housing experts, is that Milwaukee’s efforts are stymied by a combination of factors, including lack of funding that delays city actions on possible violations.

But they also include, according to experts NNS interviewed, an intentional weakening by the state Legislature of local governments’ abilities to regulate and the reluctance of tenants to complain because of fears of retaliation.

“These landlords only do what they are allowed to do,” said Robert Penner, an organizer with the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. “There are supposed to be regulations in place that hold them accountable.”

The role of Department of Neighborhood Services

The first thing Milwaukeeans are told to do when they have a safety issue in a rental unit is to reach out to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services, or DNS. The department is responsible for enforcing building, zoning, fire, environmental, property maintenance and other ordinances.

According to Tanz Rome, its finance and administration manager with the Department of Neighborhood Services, there were 37,393 complaints filed with the department in 2022, with most of them closed.  

In February, there were 879 complaints pending across all sections of the department, she said.

How DNS processes complaints

Delays vary by section and non-emergency complaints can take six to eight weeks for inspection, she said. But the department handles any life safety complaints within 24 hours, she said.

In a meeting in October, Department of Neighborhood Services Commissioner Erica Roberts blamed budget constraints, staff turnover and a scarcity of contractors as the source of delays in approving permit applications, demolitions being conducted and inspections being completed.

“They receive a very low percentage of the city’s budget,” Penner said. “And even when they can go out, the most they can do is deem a home unsafe, and tenants have to move or give the property owner a fine.”

According to Neighborhood Services, an inspector may issue a written order, which has a specific timeframe indicated for compliance. 

Tenants voice fears

Though illegal under state law, Penner said many tenants are afraid to reach out to DNS because they fear landlords will retaliate.

Although state law says no landlord can retaliate after a tenant has filed a complaint, it assigns no entity to ensure this does not happen.

Rome said, however, that city ordinance protects tenants from landlords who retaliate.

A tenant can file a complaint with Neighborhood Services, and if it is determined that a landlord has retaliated, a citation can be issued to the property owner.

Lax landlords

Raphael Ramos, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, said many non-compliant landlords depend on tenants not reporting issues to avoid having to deal with habitability concerns.

“Code enforcement by agencies like the Department of Neighborhood Services is generally precipitated by tenant complaints,” Ramos said. “Absent a complaint, we have seen landlords sit passively and refuse to make repairs, knowing that not much will happen unless a tenant reports the issue to DNS.”

Both the city and Milwaukee County have taken some measures to put tenant protections in place.

The city has established lead certification for rental units and expanded accessibility accommodation funds. The county has established a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction, expanded tenant-landlord mediation services and increased funding for housing-first policy, which works to house people in need then triage other needs to keep them housed.

Legislative constraints

But over the years, regulation has been constrained by the state Legislature, some of whose members, including leadership, own rental properties.

In 2009, the city created a residential rental certificate ordinance, which required apartments located mainly near UWM and in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood, on the North Side, to be certified by city building inspectors before they can be rented.

It was overruled in 2015 by Assembly Bill 568, which limits how local municipalities can regulate rental units.

Lawmakers have also changed legislation surrounding eviction procedures. Recent legislation has expedited the eviction process and given landlords the right to get rid of a tenant’s property.

Lawmakers have limited local government’s say in how far back a landlord can go in checking prospective tenants’ financial, housing and criminal histories; limited tenants’ ability to withhold rent; and made it easier for a landlord to shift the costs of exterminating bedbugs or other pests to the tenant.

Penner says these types of changes are the reason so many Milwaukee residents feel powerless.

“Residents need to know that they have some type of power over their living situation, and right now there is no institution that gives tenants power,” he said.

What can residents do?

Mediate Wisconsin offers landlord-tenant mediation to those willing to communicate their needs to avoid eviction or other issues.

Ramos stressed the importance of tenants to know their rights.

“In addition to documenting the conditions at issue, complaints to DNS can provide some protection to tenants by creating a presumption of retaliation if a landlord responds inappropriately, like by trying to evict,” he said.

Even without a field DNS complaint, tenants are still legally entitled to engage in rent abatement, a reduction of rent paid due to material health or safety-related concerns, he said.

Rent abatement is done by a tenant but both the Department of Neighborhood Services and Community Advocates assist tenants in understanding if they should abate and how they can do so with minimal risks. 

“Regardless, a tenant cannot be forcibly removed from a property without notice and going through court. You cannot be evicted without due process,” Ramos said.

Above all, Ramos said, there are existing programs that help tenants in need.

Keep good records

Nick Toman, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, said tenants should keep all documentation of all interactions with their landlords.

“Get it in writing,” he said. “Landlords are required to provide dates they are going to fix an issue, and you can be entitled to the monetary loss resulting from an issue.”

He said no matter how bad things get, withholding rent without going through proper channels is likely to end badly.

For more information

Tenants can call or visit the Rental Housing Resource Center if they have housing questions.