Advocates have had a lukewarm reaction to report on legal aid for tenants facing eviction

Although a program in Milwaukee County that helped tenants facing eviction find legal representation saw major successes, local housing advocates felt that much more was needed. “It’s still kind of a drip in the bucket,” Joshua Taylor, an organizer with the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) told the Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s a positive reform, but we also still need more of a systemic change.”

Called Eviction Free MKE, the program was launched as a pilot in September 2021 with $3 million in funding from Milwaukee County, the city and the United Way of Milwaukee and Waukesha. Tenants facing eviction were represented by attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and Legal Action of Wisconsin. From its launch to December 2022, the program was evaluated by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm that was contracted by the United Way.

Protesters gather for a Milwaukee Autonomous Union action during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters gather for a Milwaukee Autonomous Union action during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

the report, which was released in late March, found that representation for tenants during eviction proceedings rose from 2-3% prior to the program’s launch to 6-16%. Evictions were prevented in 76% of cases, and evictions were recorded sealed in 72%. In 70% of cases, attorneys were able to prevent the tenant from being forced to move involuntarily. Furthermore, the report found that a majority of evictions (63%) that were filed during the program were in majority-Black census tracts, and that 78% of the program’s clients were Black women. By comparison, less than 30% of Milwaukee County’s residents are Black, and about 50% are women.

Taylor has seen women repeatedly play critical roles in tenant organizing. “The most gung ho, the most willing to go and not only make changes for themselves but everyone in their building, or neighborhood, or community, it’s usually women who are leading the way,” he said. “And most of them do have children too.”

The stakes are always higher when children are involved. Stout’s report found that 71% of the program’s clients had at least one child in the household. Attorneys were also able to prevent evictions and seal records more often for clients who had children, than those without. Nearly 5,500 children were living in households represented by Eviction Free MKE attorneys during the Stout report’s monitoring period.

Protesters demonstrated to call for rent reform during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Protesters demonstrated to call for rent reform during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Taylor was similarly unsurprised by the finding that minority communities in the county bear the brunt of the eviction proceedings. For the most part, the MATU organizer rallied fellow tenants in properties connected to Youseff Berrada, a landlord now facing a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Lawyers for the department are investigating allegations that Berrada, who has acquired numerous homes in low-income minority communities in Milwaukee County, has allegedly neglected damage to his properties and subjected tenants to aggressive eviction tactics. The report notes that Berrada is the largest rental property owner in Milwaukee with about 8,000 units. Last year, Berrada accounted for 15% of all eviction cases filed countywide, 2,022, according to the report.

Although Berrada is the largest, it isn’t the only property owner with a similar reputation. The property owner with the second most crimes in 2022 accounted for just 2% of the county’s filings, however.

Taylor says far more is needed to level out the playing field when it comes to landlords like Berrada. According to Eviction Lab, March saw eviction filings in Milwaukee climb to 17% above average. Taylor says many of these issues boil down to “the landlord-tenant relationship, which is inherently an exploitation one,” he told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Just because they own the building through inheritance or they bought it, even after they make their profit over whatever they pay for the building, they continue to keep taking from the tenants.”

Protesters gather to march on Major Tom Barrett's house, to demand a freeze on evictions.  (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters demonstrated to call for rent reform during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

He cited a recent Facts From The Frontline report, produced by COWS, a University of Wisconsin research center that examines workers and the economy. The report found that 41% of workers in Milwaukee are stuck with “bad jobs” that pay less than $15. The report highlighted that the income gap between Black and white households in Milwaukee rose from 40% in 1979, when manufacturing was 40% of the work sector, to 60% in 2019, when only 12% of Milwaukee jobs were manufacturing.

“Those things kind of add up,” Taylor told the Wisconsin Examiner. “And there’s entrenchment in wanting to keep this exploitative relationship going that kind of helps keep this eviction number so high.”

Like many housing advocates, Taylor would like to see the county do more. Yet, he also understands that the county’s political relationship with the state has worsened over time, complicating the passage of legislation or the county’s ability to obtain additional funding. “It is very dependent on the state politics situation,” said Taylor.

Easing the requirements for evictions to be sealed and expanding the right-to-counsel program are additional ways Taylor feels the state could help. “Really every tenant should have access to this program,” he said of the right-to-counsel program. “It doesn’t have to be this mean tested thing where you have to have such and such income.” Taylor also pointed to the ease in which landlords are able to file evictions and a lack of protections for tenants at the state level, as additional pressure points.

a young caucasian man with his hands in his head is concerned because has just received an eviction notice
Eviction notice, photo by nito100 via Getty Royalty Free Images

Repairing Milwaukee’s relationship with the Republican-controlled legislature has been a stated goal for local elected officials. But while the power dynamics between the state and local government shift, Taylor feels that so too does the power balance between landlords and tenants. It’s something Taylor detected in the Stout report, which also included input from landlords to find middle ground with tenant feedback.

Landlords and tenants agreed, for example, that delays in providing rental assistance payments to landlords was an issue. The Social Development Commission and Community Advocates administer rental assistance in the county. However, the report noted that out of 46,000 applications, Community Advocates approved about 15% assistance applications and denied 23%, while about 62% were pending or didn’t have a specified status.

The report recommended the creation of a Property Owner Advisory Council and a Tenant Advisory Council, both of which would gather feedback to help refine Eviction Free MKE. It is also recommended that daily mailings to tenants facing summons or a complaint continue, and that door-to-door canvassing be expanded while outreach strategies are being developed.

Protesters gather to march on Major Tom Barrett's house, to demand a freeze on evictions.  (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Protesters demonstrated to call for rent reform during the summer of 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The report also advises that efforts by property owners to work with tenants prior to filing evictions should be better understood. “Stout has learned that rental property owners often try to work with tenants before filing an eviction, and the eviction filing is often perceived by rental property owners as a last resort,” the report states.

Taylor questioned how much direct involvement affected tenants would have in the proposed Tenant Advisory Council, however. He says the report could have used more direct tenant feedback and that it appeared to protect the profit of property owners in the search for a solution. “It tries to make this compromise that benefits more the landlords, and doesn’t really include tenants,” he said.


Related Posts