RACINE — The City of Racine’s Affirmative Action and Human Rights Commission has taken notice of the city’s and county’s elevated eviction rates, the highest in the state. A discussion has been sparked, but how the problem should be addressed remains in question.
Five presenters, including three Journal Times reporters who worked on the “Evicted in Racine” series published in July, shared their findings at the request of the AAHRC on Thursday at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave.
As the discussion carried on for about 90 minutes, community leaders agreed that there aren’t any simple solutions to the city’s eviction problem. What’s causing evictions to be so common in Racine isn’t known either.
One thing that was agreed upon, however, was that more financial training for tenants was needed.
Finding a reason
The city’s housing and community development specialist, Brendan Saunders, mentioned that the commonality of evictions has ramped up in the past three decades. During the Great Depression, mobs were known to stop law enforcement from carrying out an eviction, even if tenants failed to pay their rent or mortgage. With more than 16,000 evictions occurring in Racine since 2000, this is clearly no longer the case.
Saunders thinks that some of the root cause is the redlining that occurred in Racine, largely before 1950. Redlining is the “illegal practice of refusing to offer credit or insurance in a particular community on a discriminatory basis.”
Saunders believes that Racine’s history with redlining led to systematic inequality, concentrated poverty and later an increase in evictions.
“Now we’re playing catchup,” Saunders said. “Incomes are stagnating, housing costs are rising.”
Racine Mayor Cory Mason asked Saunders if there was “evidence of causation” of redlining creating modern problems in the city, to which Saunders replied: “Not at this point … (but) redlining is a big factor.”
Frannie Murillo, a managing attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Racine office, said that the city’s landlord-friendly ordinances are partially to blame. Although there are some exceptions, presiding judges in Eviction Court in Racine don’t have to make considerations for extenuating circumstances. If a tenant didn’t pay the rent, even if their inability to pay resulted from an unexpected medical cost or a recently lost job, they can still be quickly evicted.
Dane County has the lowest eviction rate (0.59 percent) out Wisconsin’s 10 most highly populated counties, which Murillo thinks is a result of “great ordinances for tenants,” such as instituted abatement schedules and a well-publicized process for withholding rent if a landlord hasn’t corrected a problem in the residence. Racine has neither.
Mason asked Murillo: “Do you feel like it is a fair process (in Racine)?”
Murillo replied: “I don’t think it’s fair … it’s an intimidating process.”
The flip side
Mark Russell is a landlord in Racine. He said he avoids evictions at almost any cost, and that he’s only evicted one tenant in four years. Many of his tenants live below the poverty line, oftentimes paying rent with the help of Section 8 housing vouchers.
“I purposefully came to this area for low-income (tenants),” he said. “I do a lot of Section 8. I wish we had a lot more money for Section 8. I’ll take as many as I can take; they’re just great tenants.”
One of the problems Russell has seen is that property managers will sometimes be paid extra to evict someone, usually because of the extra work involved. However, this incentivizes managers to bring in tenants who don’t have good track records and also encourages the manager to kick someone out the moment a tenant slips up.
Russell does the opposite, admitting that he’s placed himself in $100,000 debt by allowing people to stay in their residences if they can’t pay, especially after they lose their job or have a medical emergency.
“There are some bad landlords, but I’ve seen is that there are more landlords who would rather work with people,” Russell said.
Gai Lorenzen, the executive director of the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization and a former attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin, advocated for increasing access to attorneys and mediators for tenants facing eviction.
An aspiration of Lorenzen’s, she said, would be for Racine to better fund eviction-prevention programs, which are present in Dane County. Typically, these programs offer small sums of money over a short term to help keep people in their homes, rather than being evicted as soon as a month’s rent is missed.
“A good eviction prevention program probably provides some funds with legal services,” Lorenzen said. “Getting resources to people is essential … mediation can be really good. We also used to have a mediation program in this community at the courthouse, which worked very, very well in many cases.”
However, community apathy continues to be a concern. Murillo said that more than half the tenants called to Eviction Court usually don’t show up, something that was also observed by a Journal Times reporter.
Lorenzen added that “outreach has always been a problem,” saying that tenant education classes have consistently been poorly attended.
“I think the most important thing I’ve heard here today,” Russell said at the end of the meeting, “is actually the fact that we need to do tenant training (and that) landlords need to be trained. But I think there’s a lot to be said for getting financial training for those who need it.”
Saunders is organizing a follow-up meeting of the AAHRC to deal with the flip side of evictions.
In collaboration with the Southern Wisconsin Landlords Association, of which Russell is a member, Saunders wants to bring landlords to speak with the commission about their perspectives.
That meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11 at City Hall, Room 307.