MOUNT PLEASANT — Racine County had the highest eviction rate in the State of Wisconsin at 3.8 percent in 2016, according to the latest Census figures available. Statewide, the rate was 1.89 percent.
The City of Racine’s eviction rate was even higher, at 5.56 percent. Analyzing those figures was the focus of a four-part series published in July by The Journal Times, which has sparked an ongoing discussion across the community.
Several members of Visioning a Greater Racine, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a flourishing community, were inspired by the series and a desire to improve the community to learn more about evictions in Racine.
In addition, the city’s Affirmative Action and Human Relations Commission is scheduled to meet next month on the topic of evictions.
The City of Racine’s Affirmative Action and Human Relations Commission has been reaching out to local groups to have them address issues in the community to help determine how the commission members can be of assistance, said Brendan Saunders, community development compliance specialist with Racine’s Department of City Development. Saunders also is the fair housing officer and staff liaison to the commission.
In the wake of The Journal Times series, the commission’s September meeting is set to include presentations about evictions. That meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sept. 13 at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Room 307.
Topics to be discussed include the history of evictions, what happens in eviction court, what happens after an eviction and what service gaps are there. Journal Times reporters are set to present findings from the series as part of the presentation.
“We want this meeting to be a chance to bring all the groups together, talk about what we can do, and coordinate all of our efforts,” said Saunders.
Saunders is also a member of Visioning A Greater Racine, which has 11 Work, Action, Vision, Engagement teams dedicated to different topic areas.
On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the Healthy Productive Lives team came together for its monthly meeting at Educators Credit Union, 1326 Willow Road, to continue constructing a plan to address “Affordable Housing and Root Causes of Homelessness.”
This subcommittee aims to identify the widespread issues that Racine residents face in regards to staying in their homes, finding homes or keeping their homes in livable conditions.
Jennifer Zabel, an attorney with Northwestern Mutual, said that the subcommittee is in the midst of “learning time.”
“We want to create a good foundation now that we can build on,” Zabel said.
Thus far, the group has identified three main goals.
- Recreate the “mediator” position. A mediator used to be employed by Neighborhood Watch to help people facing eviction understand the court process as well as their rights and responsibilities. The position was cut decades ago, although other cities and organizations outside of Racine County still follow that model.
- Create visual aids for people facing eviction to avoid legal jargon, giving residents a better chance of understanding what is expected of them so that better outcomes can result. “It’s quick and can have a lot of impact,” Saunders said.
- Improve general education for both lessees and renters so that they understand what is expected of them in terms of maintaining their home, and also what is expected of their landlords/property managers so that they can be held accountable.
- Among the other major goals members of the committee have, Saunders wants to create a stronger homelessness prevention agency through local government, rather than relying on nonprofits.
The subcommittee as a whole wants to make sure that, in light of expected growth resulting from Foxconn, high-income and low-income housing are designed to coexist. Avoiding gentrification and economic segregation is a major concern.
“We’re seeing a lot of them (housing developers) come in,” Saunders said. “We’re trying to create a balance … it’s what we’ve been doing for years, just on a much faster scale … it all needs to be smartly placed: not concentrating poverty, not concentrating wealth.”
Brick by brick
“We want to create a win-win for the landlord and the tenant,” said subcommittee member and Educators Credit Union Chief Administration Officer Jim Henderson.
The City of Racine hosted two information sessions in the past few months, one for landlords and one for renters. More than 50 property managers and landlords attended the first session, which Saunders was happy to report. But only about a dozen renters attended the second session, which Saunders wasn’t so happy about.
Apathy and disillusionment with the court system has become a big problem, Saunders feels, on both the side of the tenants and the landlords.
He and Zabel attended eviction court in August, and they reported that only about one-fifth of the people facing eviction even showed up after being summoned. Those who did arrive weren’t always prepared and many of them were late.
“It was tough to watch,” Saunders admitted. “I didn’t enjoy it.”
On the flip side, Saunders said, “we have a lot of absentee landlords (in Racine). A lot of people don’t even know who their landlords are.”
Increasing education, through easy-to-understand flowcharts for residents or by assigning mediators to work with possible evictees, “could make a huge difference,” he said.
Slowly, yes. Surely?
The goal for the Healthy Productive Lives WAVE team is to have a formalized action plan by next summer, Zabel said, with it being fully implemented in the next five years. What that plan looks like and how it will be implemented is still in the works.
Past plans to address these issues haven’t always gone well, which is why VGR is willing to go slowly with this.
Saunders mentioned RacineHousingLoans.com as an example. It was supposed to provide money to rehabilitate homes for property owners who weren’t eligible for bank loans. It hasn’t taken off, in part because of a lack of public awareness and the aforementioned aparthy.
“The issues are huge,” Zabel said. “There are some big holes.”