New state senate bill brings dispute over renters’ rights
Tenants’ rights advocates say a bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lasee (R-DePere) strips renters of their rights while the legislator maintains it modernizes landlord-tenant laws.
“It tips the balance in favor of landlords on everything,” said Brenda Konkel, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Alliance for Tenants Rights.
But Lasee’s chief of staff, Rob Kovach, said the senator’s aim was to make Wisconsin’s landlord-tenant codes uniform across the state, and make it easier to resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.
“We’re going to better define these landlord-tenant laws,” he said.
The bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville), Andre Jacque (R-Bellevue), Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh) and Donald Pridemore (R-Hartford). It’s been referred to the Senate Committee on Insurance and Housing, which is expected to vote on it this Wednesday. Kovach said the bill could make it to the full Senate the first week of March.
The issue with Senate Bill 466, said Konkel, is that it eliminates what’s known as “double damages” for tenants when landlords withhold security deposits. Under existing law, a landlord has 21 days to return a security deposit or the tenant can sue in small claims court and, if the tenant prevails, receive twice the amount of the deposit plus court and attorney fees.
Under the proposed bill, however, a landlord could keep the deposit unless the tenant pays a $90 court fee to have it returned, said Nick Toman, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Wisconsin, which testified against the bill at a Feb. 15 public hearing. That, Toman said, essentially “takes away any incentive” on the part of the landlord to return the security deposit.
Kovach, however, said the bill requires that landlords statewide use a uniform check-in sheet noting the condition of the rental property before and after it’s leased to minimize security deposit disputes. He also said the bill as it is now is unfair to landlords, as tenants can leave anytime during the lease’s term, and the 21-day clock begins immediately ticking.
“The way the law is written is if the tenant leaves, the landlord really doesn’t know when that was,” he said, adding that savvy renters, “typically law students in Madison,” use that law to file unfounded suits.
“Legal Aid’s not going to tell you about that,” he said.
“They’re trying to systematically make life easier for landlords at the expense of tenants’ rights,” said Colin Gillis, an organizer with the Alliance.
Kovach, however, said that provision is another attempt to level the landlord-tenant playing field. As the law stands now, he said, landlords are required to hire a bonded moving company to remove items left behind and store them for 60 days at their own expense.
“What we’re trying to do is make it so the landlord doesn’t have to do a couple months of storage before renting it out,” he said. “Even bags of garbage have to be stored.”
The proposed bill also includes a stipulation that a tenant notify the landlord of any repairs needed in writing before contacting a building inspector or the tenant’s elected official, a move Gillis says may have “constitutional issues.”
And Toman said it’s unlikely tenants wouldn’t first try to resolve repair disputes with landlords. “We see tenants who beg and plead with their landlords to fix things before they go to the building inspector,” he said.
“Not all landlords are reputable landlords who act in good faith all the time,” said Toman. “This bill seems to forget that.”