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MEGAN BURKE, megan.burke@journaltimes.com 

Tony Romo putts early in the second round of the Racine Tri-Course Amateur Championship Saturday at the H.F. Johnson Park Golf Course. Romo finished with a 1-under-par 71 for a two-day total of 139 and a five-stroke lead over Todd Schaap. The tournament concludes Sunday at Meadowbrook Country Club.


Local
Journal Times special report
What happens to your possessions if you get evicted?

RACINE COUNTY — After tenants are evicted from their residence, they are often unable to bring all of their possessions with them. The following details what happens to their things and the process they have to follow if they want them back.

1. Being evicted

The Racine County Sheriff’s Office delivers a court order to the residence; the writ demands that the resident vacate the property by a specific date and time, with a minimum five days’ notice.

There are usually about eight evictions per week in Racine County, and about half of them involve a moving company. That’s where Milwaukee-based Eagle Movers comes in.

Eagle Movers handles evictions in Racine, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Winnebago counties. Eagle gets called in by landlords to empty the residences of evicted tenants when they leave possessions behind.

2. The moving costs of an eviction

If the tenant refuses to leave a residence after eviction and is unable to successfully fight it in court — or, if they vacate the premises but leave belongings behind — at least two sheriff’s deputies and Eagle Movers will empty the house or apartment at the specified eviction date — always a Thursday.

If this occurs, the initial monetary cost of eviction falls on the landlord.

For starters, it will cost the landlord $160 minimum per hour of work for the five-member crew from Eagle Movers, with a minimum of two hours pay, if anything at all is removed from the premises.

On top of that, it costs $92.32 for two deputies per hour; $3.50 per carton packed; $25/hour per extra crew member; $10 for every stove, fridge, piano, deep freezer, flight of stairs or hide-a-bed; $15 per waterbed; and $30 if fumigation is necessary. A $400 deposit is also required.

So, if the crew has to move just five boxes, it’ll still cost the landlord at least $337.50. This all comes after paying the Sheriff’s Office $60 for the initial writ.

However, since March 1, 2014, in Wisconsin landlords aren’t required to remove an evicted person’s belongings from the residence. If the tenant refuses to vacate, or if they leave any property behind, landlords are allowed to take ownership of their former tenant’s belongings.

According to the Madison-based Tenant Resource Center: “If the landlord wrote in the lease that they won’t move and store property left behind, the landlord can do anything they want with property in an eviction, without involving the sheriff, but they must notify the sheriff that they’re doing it themselves.”

“The unlucky ones are the ones where the landlords get all their stuff,” Tom Brittain, owner of Eagle Movers, said. “That’s a tough spot for the tenant.”

This isn’t common in Racine; Brittain isn’t sure if it ever happens here, but it is an option for evictors.

3. Stored belongings

If the tenant is there when Eagle Movers collects their possessions, they’ll be given information about where their belongings will be stored and a phone number to call to get it back. If they aren’t present, a letter from the sheriff’s office will be mailed within three days.

For storage, Eagle Movers has its own warehouse in Milwaukee and rents space at several other locations across southeastern Wisconsin, including in Racine County.

To retrieve their belongings, evicted tenants have to pay Eagle Movers 30 cents per cubic foot per month of storage, then find a way to transport it to their new residence or some other storage location. If Eagle is storing an entire house or apartment’s worth of possessions, the price of recovery can get hefty.

“Hopefully you’ll give us a call,” Brittain said. “Tenants think of us as an adversary … We’re more like a lifeboat for them.”

4. To auction

Sixty percent of the time, Brittain said, people who were evicted never pick up their possessions. Within 90 days, he’ll send a certified letter to the former tenants’ forwarding address or last-known address — if they have one — warning the evicted person that if they don’t pick up their belongings by a certain date, they’ll be sold at auction.

Anything that Eagle Movers doesn’t manage to sell usually ends up in a landfill or dump.

“One of the biggest problems is: People just don’t contact us,” Brittain said.

“Tenants think of us as an adversary … We’re more like a lifeboat for them.” Tom Brittain, owner of Eagle Movers

Local
Forced Out: A look at Racine's high eviction rate

RACINE COUNTY — No one wants to be in eviction court. Not the landlords and not the tenants.

Yet Racine County sees more than 1,000 people walk into eviction court each year, the majority of them from the City of Racine.

Starting at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays, dozens of lawyers and laypeople fill either the fourth- or seventh-floor courtroom of the Racine County Courthouse.

On the fourth floor, presided over by Judge David Paulson, the air conditioning didn’t kick in on the unseasonably warm morning of May 21. The benches were full of people fanning themselves and waiting their turn to go before the judge.

The seventh-floor courtroom, presided over by Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, has fewer benches. When the proceedings started there on June 4, it was standing room only with impatient spillovers checking the docket in the hallway.

Many of the defendants’ stories shared a similar arc: They were going about their lives, getting by, when they were derailed by a job loss, illness or accident. They fell behind, then found themselves without a home. Some people had someplace to go, others didn’t. For many Americans, what should be a bump in the road can have devastating consequences.

Princeton University researchers with the Eviction Lab compiled court records and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau between 2000 and 2016. They found that in 2016, the last year recorded, Racine County had the highest eviction rate in the State of Wisconsin at 3.8 percent. Statewide, the rate was 1.89 percent.

The City of Racine’s eviction rate is even higher, at 5.56 percent; the eviction filing rate for the city was 7.95 percent. That means that for every 100 rental households in the city, almost eight had an eviction action filed against them by a landlord, and five or six of those households had an eviction judgment against them. It’s the highest eviction rate of any mid-size city in the state.

And 2016 was the bottom of a downward trend. The peak was back in 2013, when 9.34 percent of rental households had evictions filed against them and 6.32 percent were evicted. That year 1,245 Racine households went through eviction court, and 842 were evicted. That is just the number of households that were formally evicted through the courts.

A rock and a hard place

Frannie Murillo, managing attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Racine office, said if the eviction rate is going down, she can’t tell.

“Our phones ring off the hook every day with people calling about eviction services,” Murillo said.

Some of the factors involved are obvious and can be found in communities across the country — high unemployment, low and/or inconsistent wages and an affordable housing shortage. Murillo said many of her clients are people who were making a living and paying their bills until something happened.

“I work with tenants that have to choose between paying their rent or fixing their car,” Murillo said. “I had somebody who lost their wallet on the bus, and they’re disabled and they get that one check.”

The Federal Reserve Board published a study in May that found 40 percent of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense — not with a credit card or by borrowing from family. They just would not be able to come up with the money. So instead, they have to choose between the rent and a vehicle to get them to work, or between the rent and food.

Landlord perspective

That puts landlords in a bind — either keep the tenant on and hope they’ll get their money back or spend a considerable amount of money to get them out and get another tenant in.

John Frickensmith, president of the Southern Wisconsin Landlords Association, said that’s a position no landlord wants to be in.

“At the end of the day, the banks don’t care about the landlord’s problems, regardless of what they have going on,” Frickensmith said.

Kurt Paulsen, a researcher and consultant for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, estimated based on Census figures that more than 70 percent of Racine’s rental housing stock is made up of fewer than nine units, which suggests the majority of Racine landlords are “mom and pop” landlords. A large corporation is better positioned to weather delinquency until the lease is up. For mom and pop, that rent check is vital to their income.

“If you’re a small landlord and you have eight units and one unit is not paying rent, that’s a huge chunk of your income,” Paulsen said.

Julie Johnson, who owns rental properties in Racine, received a writ of restitution through eviction court for the $2,400 a former tenant owed her. The tenant had struggled to keep up with the rent for a while, but Johnson had been lenient because the tenant had a young child and a newborn baby.

“I’m not completely heartless,” said Johnson, who went to eviction court in June. “But I probably stretched it out too long.”

It wasn’t the first time Johnson has had to evict someone. But due to the cost to evict, she said she tries to work something out with a tenant as long as they’re communicative. The tenant had moved out the weekend before the hearing.

“This girl was trying,” Johnson said. “It’s hard for single moms.”

The woman Johnson was evicting didn’t appear in court, which is common. Murillo said she believes that may have to do with the process itself.

The process

Legal Action provides assistance in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties, so Murillo has seen differences in how those counties handle eviction court.

“In Milwaukee, it’s more like a negotiation,” she said. “In Kenosha they give time to each case.”

In Racine County, small claims and eviction cases start at 8:30 a.m., and the judge has about an hour to get through dozens of cases. The judges keep questions and comments quick and to the point: Are you behind on the rent? How much? Is that accurate? Do you have proof?

Cassandra Easley, who was in court in June, was disappointed after her hearing. Easley had lived in a unit that went through three owners in nine years. She said the apartment had fallen into disrepair, so she told the landlord that she was moving out a month in advance. He took her to eviction court after she moved out, claiming she owed him rent for one month. She said she had already moved out. The judge ruled in favor of the landlord.

“I was hoping to be heard,” she said. “I think that people should be heard more, because there’s two sides to every story.”

Murillo said that for her clients, making their case in eviction court is a challenge.

“It’s really scary. It’s really intimidating. You think you have a defense, and they just want to know whether you paid the rent or not,” she said. “I don’t know that tenants are getting a fair shake in the court system.”

Confusing laws

It’s not easy for the judges either. Gasiorkiewicz said one of the issues is that often, the landlords and tenants are representing themselves.

“The remarkable thing about eviction court is that people appear without a lawyer,” Gasiorkiewicz said. “A lot of people don’t understand the law. A lot of people don’t look up the law. It’s problematic.”

Cory Chambliss and his fiancée were evicted from an apartment on Eighth Street and Park Avenue on March 1 after living there for about seven months.

“We withheld rent for a good reason,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss said the landlord seemed fine in the beginning, but stopped coming to fix things. Water was leaking from under the sink and then seeping between the tiles in the kitchen, he said. This was happening for months. The landlord asked for more time to fix the problem.

“He never came, and it got worse and worse,” Chambliss said.

The landlord put a bucket beneath the sink, but it went through the rotted wood in the bottom of the kitchen cabinet, Chambliss said. They also dealt with sinks that were backed up and black mold in the bathroom, which didn’t have an exhaust fan. Chambliss said they ended up going to the hospital after their throats swelled up, and they suspected this was because of the mold.

They withheld $200 a month for two months, Chambliss said, before being evicted. Their total monthly rent was $535. He said they spent the majority of that $200 a month on cleaning supplies to clean up the water.

Chambliss said he called the Health Department about the conditions in the apartment and was waiting for someone to come inspect it when he and his fiancée were evicted.

“It angers me to this day,” he said. “I still feel like I was wrongfully served.”

The rules of the law

Judge Paulson said that people don’t understand the process, which he argued does allow tenants to have their say, but not necessarily in the first hearing.

“The process is limited in scope,” Paulson said. “If there’s some defense they can give, we’ll give them a trial date within seven days.”

Paulson said he’s also noticed how the laws in Wisconsin have changed to favor landlords over tenants in the past few years.

One of the changes in Wisconsin Act 317, which was signed into law in April, said a tenant must raise “valid legal grounds” to receive a full hearing before a judge. Before, tenants were allowed to simply “contest” their eviction, and a judge would set a hearing, according to Tenant Resource Center, an organization based in Madison that studies housing.

“As a judge, you have to go according to the rules that are in the state statutes,” Paulson said.

Paulson said he is sympathetic to those who are being evicted but has to remember the landlords, who are on the hook for property taxes and maintenance.

“That’s the balancing act that you have to go through,” he said.

“If you’re a small landlord and you have eight units and one unit is not paying rent, that’s a huge chunk of your income.” — Kurt Paulsen, Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority consultant

“Our phones ring off the hook every day with people calling about eviction services. I work with tenants that have to choose between paying their rent or fixing their car. I had somebody who lost their wallet on the bus, and they’re disabled and they get that one check.” Frannie Murillo, managing attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Racine office


Christina Lieffring / CHRISTINA LIEFFRING christina.lieffring@journaltimes.com 

Members of the Tri-County Fire and Rescue Training Association Board of Directors and representatives from the City of Burlington Fire Department break ground at the site of their future training facility at 2200 Pine St. on Saturday morning. 


Crime-and-courts
2015 fatal crash
Mother reacts to overturned conviction

RACINE — It’s been nearly three years since Wanda Payton-Gregory lost her son in a 2015 crash, and the pain hasn’t dulled.

“As a mother, I will never see my son again,” Payton-Gregory said. “I’ll never have grandchildren from him.”

Earlier this month, Payton-Gregory was shocked to hear that the conviction of Dartavian Watson, the man sentenced in the OWI crash that killed her son, was overturned due to what was later determined to be an illegal blood draw by the Racine Police Department.

“I feel like the Racine Police Department really dropped the ball on this one in a lot of ways,” Payton-Gregory said.

‘Coerced’ blood draw

On Oct. 8, 2015, Watson, 22, was driving on Mound Avenue and failed to stop at the intersection of West Sixth Street and Mound Avenue, and crashed into a building, according to a criminal complaint. Witnesses said he was traveling at speeds between 60 mph and 70 mph.

Payton-Gregory’s son, 25-year-old Robert Johnson, a passenger in the vehicle, died two days later from head injuries. The vehicle’s other passenger was also injured, but survived.

Watson was asked to submit to a blood draw and read an Informing the Accused form, which stated that if he refused a test, his operating privileges would be revoked and he would be subject to other penalties.

The blood draw determined that Watson had marijuana in his system and a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 — 0.03 more than the legal limit of 0.08.

According to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, because Watson was told his license would be revoked for refusing a chemical test, which was technically not true, the consent for the blood draw was deemed coerced and his conviction was overturned.

“It’s almost three years later and they are just now figuring it out?” Payton-Gregory said.

Racine Police Chief Art Howell stood by the work of his officers and investigators regarding the crash investigation.

“The loss of life in this case represents the greatest area of concern. In reviewing the investigative steps taken to secure and preserve critical evidence under the implied consent law, proper protocol was followed,” Howell said in comments emailed to The Journal Times.

“Under Wisconsin’s implied consent law, where probable cause exists to request a blood, breath or urine sample, refusal to comply with such a lawful request exposes the refusing party to specific sanctions, including revocation of driving privileges,” Howell continued. “When establishing probable cause, police action must be reasonable and articulable.”

Howell said that in investigating the crash, officers took a number of factors into account in developing probable cause to request a blood sample.

“From the extremely reckless driving that proceeded this fatal accident (where speeds reached 60-70 mph), to Watson’s inability to safely maintenance control of his vehicle, it was reasonable to consider driver factors and impairment as contributing factors in this accident,” Howell wrote. “As evidenced by the results, the assessment of impairment was accurate.”

No notification

What was more concerning to Payton-Gregory, is the fact that she was not notified about Watson’s overturned conviction, despite being notified about other court proceedings against him.

She first found out about the overturned conviction after a friend of her son sent her a text message, stating that he had seen a story about it in The Journal Times on June 23.

“I was in shock, more or less,” Payton-Gregory said. “Mostly because I had received no form of communication from the District Attorney’s Office. That was the first time I had ever heard about it.”

Payton-Gregory made it very clear that she does not wish to slander Watson or his family, but is hurt that she won’t have the opportunity to make any new memories with her son.

“I understand the part that he (Watson) played is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life,” Payton-Gregory said. “I don’t think he set out to intentionally harm by son, but this situation makes me feel like my son’s life had no importance.”

The Racine County District Attorney’s Office did not return requests for comment regarding the overturned conviction.

Howell, meanwhile, said his department will continue to follow developments in this case to determine if policy changes will be required moving forward.

“However, based on the facts as currently known, officers acted in good faith in the interest of public safety,” the chief said.

“I understand the part that he (Dartavian Watson) played is something he will have to live with for the rest of his life. I don’t think he set out to intentionally harm by son, but this situation makes me feel like my son’s life had no importance.” — Wanda Payton-Gregory, mother of Robert Johnson, who died in a 2015 crash