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.
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.
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.”
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