RACINE — Tom Brittain stands in the middle of the Eagle Movers warehouse. He looks small among the stacks of cardboard boxes, discarded fishing rods, "Guitar Hero" controllers, bicycles with flat tires, piles of clothes and empty suitcases.
Brittain owns Milwaukee-based Eagle Movers. Its 75,000-square-foot building has two floors entirely dedicated to storing the belongings of people who were evicted from across southeastern Wisconsin. That isn't always enough room, and Brittain will rent space at other storage units.
Eagle Movers takes care of evictions in Racine County when former tenants leave behind anything that's still intact. If the owners never pick up their belongings, Brittain is forced to either sell or throw away their items.
He doesn't like doing it, but after sending numerous notices to the owners, Brittain runs out of options; the warehouse might get too full, because people keep getting evicted.
Brittain's warehouse is one of the last stops in the eviction process. By the time people reach this phase it's too late for intervention.
Nonprofit and government leaders and researchers are looking for solutions so that tenants never have to find their belongings in Brittain's warehouse.
They have their work cut out for them, and they’re doing it without much aid from tight-budgeted federal, state and local governments.
A Band-Aid treatment
Sometimes, it only takes a few bucks to prevent an eviction. That’s where emergency and rental assistance programs come in.
By distributing money to people who may come up short on a rent payment, rental assistance programs aim to keep people in their homes.
Often, as is the case with ResCare in Racine, people can only apply for assistance in times of crisis. That includes cases of imminent eviction but also unforeseen medical expenses, loss of income or natural disaster.
ResCare's office is located inside the Racine County Dennis Kornwolf Service Center, 1717 Taylor Ave. As such, it is the only government-affiliated rental assistance program in the county, according to M.T. Boyle, the county executive’s chief of staff, although it is privately owned. Through ResCare, applicants can receive money to cover rent and energy bills, as well as get help finding a job.
Gai Lorenzen, executive director of the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization and former president of Racine County’s Continuum of Care, said there have been more impactful rental assistance programs in the past, but monetary backing has fallen off.
“The most substantial would have been the old HPRP (Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program),” Lorenzen said in an email.
HPRP was strongest from 2010-2012, Lorenzen said. It offered rental assistance, case management and legal services for its clients, receiving most of its funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal $831 billion economy stimulus package created in 2009. But ARRA funding was cut off in 2012.
“In recent years, to assist the most needy and most likely to be evicted, the model used has been legal services with some rental assistance to pay arrears,” Lorenzen said.
Seven years ago, the Continuum of Care, which coordinates homeless assistance efforts in Racine County, was able to distribute about $100,000 per year for rental assistance through HPRP. Now, the current program has only about $10,000 available yearly.
“It’s a small amount. That’s part of the issue; we’re aware of it,” Brendan Saunders, community development compliance specialist for the City of Racine said.
This monetary throttling is the opposite of what Adam Porton, a researcher at the Princeton University Eviction Lab, said may need to happen at the national level.
“Really, the scale of the (eviction) problem is so large that it could take the expansion of a federal program to address it adequately,” he said.
Porton said a possible solution could be the expansion of housing voucher programs, oftentimes referred to as Section 8.
“Expanding the program would, without messing with rent control, provide more funding for poor families to stabilize the housing situation,” he said. “It would be challenging politically to do so.”
Some of southeast Wisconsin's elected officials want to see more rental assistance, some want less, others are mixed.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opposed the initial stimulus package that funded HPRP in 2009. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was elected soon after voicing his opposition to the 2009 stimulus package, unseating Democrat Russ Feingold, who voted in favor of it.
Ryan voted in favor of a $70 million addition to Section 8 in 2006, as did then-congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is now in the Senate. But, in 2014 and 2016, Ryan moved to restrict who has access to housing voucher programs.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason has advocated for the city to take control of more distressed buildings in the city and also brought added attention to the evictions problem by announcing that April would be "Fair Housing Month."
Saunders also wants to see more funding dedicated to helping people who could be evicted, but it’s easier said than done.
The City of Racine has started working on constructing and refurbishing high-quality, low-income homes, including a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. But it’s a slow process, especially with the lack of obtainable funding.
“We all want to see results right away,” Saunders said, “and sometimes it takes longer than we would like.”
Partnering to revitalize
Some believe that Racine County’s judicial policies are exacerbating the problem.
In Racine County, evicted people almost always represent themselves in court. In New York City, low-income individuals are guaranteed the right to an attorney to represent them in front of a judge in eviction cases, as of August 2017.
Since June 2018, Milwaukee County has considered people who receive housing assistance to be a “protected class." As such, landlords cannot reject applicants outright simply because they would receive housing vouchers — or the landlord would risk facing a discrimination lawsuit. This is allowed in Racine, which reduces the number of residences available to low-income households.
Since both of these changes are so recent, it's unclear if any impact has been made.
Equipped with greater understandings of the eviction process, locals are looking to innovate to slow down evictions across the county. Ed Miller, the executive director of the Racine Revitalization Partnership, is full of ideas.
Miller, whose nonprofit works to build a better Racine through economic revitalization, led an effort to provide both landlords and tenants a better understanding of their legal rights and duties. For example, it is illegal for tenants to simply withhold rent if there’s a safety concern in their building. And landlords aren’t allowed to evict someone without proper notice.
Miller also wants to start a “foster house program.” He noted that people who weren’t reared in an environment of home ownership often don’t have the background knowledge that would help them find stable housing.
That’s where Miller’s education-focused foster house program would come in.
“You can have a homeowner in Racine team up with a new homeowner, maybe a first-time homeowner, maybe someone who’s coming back to home ownership,” Miller said. “(They would) help them budget and know what parts of maintenance need be to done when, and what’s a good price for roof repairs and furniture replacement.”
The Racine Revitalization Partnership, along with city and county officials, has formed a group that work-shopped ideas regarding how to deal with added tax-foreclosed properties in Racine. Miller is hopeful it will actually solve some problems regarding evictions as well, but the group remains informal and hasn’t launched anything major on either front. Not yet, at least.
Rodney Prunty, the executive director of United Way of Racine County, is working with Miller on some of the housing issues local residents face, including evictions. The group is looking at how it can help people who struggle financially get on a pathway to gainful employment. Other organizations represented include the United Way, Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization, Housing Resources, CommonBond Communities, Visioning a Greater Racine and Fellowship Christian Believers Church.
Prunty said an eviction can act like a multiplier for someone who is already struggling financially.
“When folks don’t have access to resources, it makes it very difficult for them to keep their heads above water,” Prunty said. “It’s a compounding effect in terms of poverty.”
Miller said the group is reaching out to partners that may be able to help develop solutions to the problem.
Housing issues and increasing rents are concerns the county is watching, said Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave. Rents have already increased north and south of Racine County. An increase here became inevitable.
As that happens, Delagrave said, “we want to make sure individuals living paycheck-to-paycheck will be able to afford the increase.”
He also said that making sure there is enough market-rate housing is part of the discussion.
“The grand solution,” Delagrave said, “is getting everyone at the table and putting the puzzle together to get the best housing available for all incomes.”