By: Allison Dikanovic
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Editors note: An earlier version of this story stated that the hold on evictions does not offer protections for people on month-to-month leases. This was incorrect. Those with month-to-month are also protected from evictions under Gov. Evers emergency order.
You’ve hopefully heard that Gov. Tony Evers has ordered us to stay inside and practice social distancing with his Safer at Home directive.
But, as some housing advocates point out, it’s not possible to stay safer in your home if you’re forced to leave it.
On Friday, Evers issued an emergency order to put evictions and foreclosures on hold throughout Wisconsin for 60 days.
“During this time individuals, families, and small businesses may see disruptions in paychecks,” Evers said in a statement.
“This is another step we can take to prioritize the health and safety of Wisconsinites.”
What does that mean for Milwaukee renters and homeowners who may be struggling to make payments because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We break it down for you.
Do I have to pay rent on April 1?
The short answer is yes, even if you lost your job because of COVID-19.
Evers’ order stopped evictions, but it didn’t suspend rent.
You are still obligated to pay your rent and could be responsible for back rent after the 60 days, unless you work out a new formal agreement with your landlord.
“Pay what you can, if you can,” recommended Colleen Foley, the executive
director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, which provides free legal services to people with lower incomes who need representation.
Foley said she knows that some families need to make difficult decisions at the end of the month, such as paying for food or making rent, because of COVID-19.
“This is a global health crisis and a financial crisis,” she said. “But the governor expects people to be responsible as much as they can.”
Could this change?
Probably not, but we’ll keep you updated.
Milwaukee Autonomous Tenant Union, also known as MATU, is a new citywide tenant advocacy organization that’s pushing for a freeze on rent, mortgage and utility bills during the pandemic.
“Most working people are living paycheck to paycheck, and we can’t expect that after however long this lasts that people would be able to pay that back,” said Jay Geils, an organizer for MATU. “It could lead to a really horrible housing crisis.”
Though the organization is advocating for a rent freeze, it is not encouraging a rent strike and is still advising people to pay rent if they can.
“We wouldn’t recommend that people withhold rent because of the ways landlords can retaliate,” Geils said. “The landlord can then just file for an eviction later.”
What should I do if I can’t afford rent right now?
If you can’t make your rent payment by April 1 because of a COVID-19-related reason, Deb Heffner, the strategic housing director at Community Advocates, said you should talk with your landlord about the changes to your income, and reach out to local organizations to try to get short-term assistance.
“Try not to wait,” she said. “If you know that you will need help, seek resources now.”
She said staying on track with payments will help prevent bigger issues when the hold on evictions is over.
Organizations like Community Advocates offer emergency rent assistance and can make referrals to other services.
If I don’t pay this month, will I be evicted?
No, definitely not for the next 60 days.
The emergency order prevents landlords from evicting tenants until at least May 26.
Not only does that mean that you can’t be forced from your home before May 26, it also means that landlords can’t begin any part of the eviction process before that date.
If your landlord violates the governor’s order and tries to evict you in the next 60 days, you can report them to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Foley also recommended you contact at lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.
Is there a catch?
Kind of. Since the eviction ban does not waive rent payments, tenants are still accountable for the payments they miss.
That means that after 60 days, landlords technically could file for an eviction for nonpayment.
“What this will do in the immediate future is keep people safely in their homes and getting the services they need,” Foley said.
“The real concern is what happens when thing go back to normal. We’re anticipating a tidal wave of eviction work.”
Since evictions happen in civil court, tenants are not guaranteed legal representation, but organizations like Legal Aid can represent tenants facing eviction for free if their income qualifies.
Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, which also provides legal representation to tenants, is suspended until further notice.
What if I’m a homeowner?
Just like renters, under the governor’s order you are still accountable for your mortgage payments, but your home cannot undergo foreclosure proceedings for the next 60 days.
So if you can, you should still pay.
If you can’t make mortgage payments because of a loss of income from COVID-19, Foley recommended you contact your mortgage company to try to work something out.
Lenders across the country are recognizing the financial strain that this pandemic is putting on borrowers.
You could also look into options for modifying your loan if your income has changed.
Either way, you can’t be foreclosed on right now.
Also, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development put foreclosures on hold for 60 days for single-family homes with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Will all my utilities stay on, even if I’m short on cash to make my payments?
Last week, Evers made an order that suspends all utility shut-offs and also restricts utility companies from charging late fees for the duration of the public health emergency.
But just like rent and mortgage payments, if you can make them, you should continue to.
Lastly, if you are in need of energy assistance, you may be eligible. The income guidelines have changed due to COVID-19. You only need to show proof of income loss for one month instead of three.
Resources for tenants, landlords and homeowners:
• Community Advocates is opening up a special rental help line, specifically as a result of COVID-19, to connect people to rent assistance as well as other benefits including energy assistance, unemployment and foodshare.
The organization also provides services for landlords, including mediation and assistance working out agreements between tenants and landlords.
You can call 414-270-4646 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Mediate Milwaukee offers mediation for tenants, landlords, homeowners and lenders to help work through conflicts and come to agreements. You can call them at 414-939-8800 or email them at email@example.com.
• Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee can provide legal assistance to income-eligible tenants in dispute with landlords, as well as to homeowners. You can call them at 414-727-5300.
• Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council can help homeowners protect themselves from mortgage and foreclosure prevention scams, as well as from predatory home loans. You can call them at 414-278-1240.
• Housing Resources Inc. can provide counseling to homeowners and has programs to help people prevent foreclosure. You can call them at 414-461-6330.
• If you think you are at risk of becoming homeless, you can always call 211 or text your ZIP code to TXT-211 (898-211).
• If you want to learn more about evictions in the city or see your landlord’s track record of evictions, you can check out the maps and data on mke-evict.com.
Do you have any other questions about essential services or how your daily life will be impacted by COVID-19? Let us know. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or you can text our reporter Allison at 262-497-5927. We’re listening, and we’ll look into it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly labeled the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee as the Legal Aid Society of Wisconsin.