Published in the 3/25/16 Milwaukee Journal
By Heiner Giese
Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted” with the subtitle “Poverty and Profit in the American City” has generated much discussion in the Milwaukee community and among us Milwaukee landlords. We generally agree with the Journal Sentinel’s March 13 editorial calling for more discussion on how to provide decent housing for the poor.
While Desmond does an excellent job of presenting and humanizing the struggles of the poor to pay their rent, he doesn’t adequately cover the “profit” aspect of his subtitle. Out of 30 landlords interviewed, he only presents case studies on two successful ones. The marginal operators and the failed shoestring capitalists (to say nothing of the many nonprofit housing groups who have failed) are not featured.
I have been involved in housing issues for over three decades — as a former hands-on landlord, as attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin and as an attorney representing landlords (and sometimes tenants) in eviction and foreclosure court.
My clients have properties in all areas of Milwaukee and nearby suburbs. But in the inner city, many landlords have failed. I have sued them or defended them when their rental property was foreclosed on because they couldn’t make the mortgage or land contract payment because the rent money wasn’t coming in. A good chunk of the abandoned houses you’ll see when driving through central city Milwaukee were once owned by landlords.
Desmond is right in pointing to two correlating equations: difficulty paying your rent because you’re poor = getting evicted; getting evicted = getting deeper into poverty. And there is a third equation: getting evicted once = getting evicted again.
The details are not in the book but one of Desmond’s featured tenants had seven evictions filed against her in the 12 year period from 2003 through January, 2015, three of them since she was in his survey in August 2008. So ask yourself, what responsible landlord who needs the rent to pay the mortgage, the taxes, the water and sewer bill and the repair costs for the windows broken by neighborhood vandals would rent to this struggling lady?
Housing vouchers for all, so no one pays more than, say, 40% of their income for rent is an answer. Except you wonder if it is politically doable. Will John and Mary Homeowner give up some of their mortgage interest tax deduction so their government subsidy can instead help their neighbor on the other side of the tracks pay her rent?
Converting part of cash welfare benefits to a voucher for those who have an eviction record would make them more acceptable in the private rental market.
Another remedy touted by Desmond is to provide lawyers for those facing eviction. But that will not prevent eviction for the vast majority of defendants in eviction court who are behind on the rent.A lawyer can only help them delay the eviction. So they get another free month out of their landlord and who winds up paying for that “free” month? It is their low-income neighbor in the unit upstairs whose monthly rent is $50 higher than it should be to make up for the landlord’s loss. No wonder, as Desmond shows, that rents in the inner city aren’t much less than in the suburbs.
Some solutions proposed by Desmond would work, but others won’t or can’t garner legislative support in today’s political climate.
Ron Hegwood, our association president, recently wrote: “A good tenant is worth their weight in gold. How can we create more good tenants and protect and help the ones we have?” We look forward to meeting with tenant advocates and public officials to seek answers to that question.
Heiner Giese is a Milwaukee attorney who represents the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, Inc.