By PrincessSafiya Byers
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.
As a former landlord and the current attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, Heiner Giese said he sits through lots of eviction court cases.
And what he sees is a system in which landlords are taking the brunt of the blow when evicting a tenant.
“Our data shows that landlords rarely if ever receive any of the money owed to them when they evict,” he said. “And when they do, it’s less than what is asked, but the narrative built on other data would make people think otherwise.”
The Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, or AASEW, is a trade organization representing owners and managers of rental housing in Wisconsin.
As one indication of a narrative on evictions, Giese points to an article by The New York Times that says some tenants are being evicted for owing less than $600.
But the association’s report, “Comprehensive Study of One Month of Evictions Filed in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin,” said the biggest item not always taken into account by those decrying evictions is the financial loss sustained by landlords who pursue them.
“The reason for this is that many eviction cases are either dismissed (51% in this study), or a money judgment for damages is not sought (only 21% had judgments for any claim other than court costs) and a very small percentage of actual judgments are ever reported to be paid or satisfied (2.9%),” the report said.
“That right there shows you that the idea that landlords evict for profit is false,” said Giese.
Some housing advocates recognize that a blanket narrative of landlords doesn’t tell the full story.
“The Rental Housing Resource Center has been collaborating and working hard to prevent evictions and the AASEW has given us a platform to reach landlords,” said Deb Heffner, the housing strategy director for Community Advocates. “I think this report elevates the idea that we need a menu of options in order to properly support both tenants and landlords.”
Community Advocates works to ensure low-income families and individuals in Milwaukee are able to meet their basic needs.
The association’s report analyzed residential evictions filed in Milwaukee County in December 2019. It looked at each filing’s case number and name, filing date, the attorney representing the landlord, the attorney representing the tenant, the type of notice given, the dollar amount stated in the notice and the dollar amount listed in the complaint.
Giese, who said he has been involved in housing issues for over three decades, said nothing the association found came as a surprise to the organization.
‘People are quick to jump to a narrative’
“We had already expected what we were going to find when we started our research,” said Giese. “People are quick to jump to a narrative about how people must defend their homes from landlords, but no one is analyzing what’s going on” with landlords and evictions.
According to Giese, people must analyze the cost of evictions, maintenance of homes, property taxes and the cost of tenant turnover to a landlord before jumping to conclusions.
The report said sites such as the Eviction Lab at Princeton University can share missing and misleading information that does not pain a complete portrait.
The Eviction Lab is a team of researchers, students, and website architects who believe that a stable, affordable home is central to human flourishing and economic mobility.
“I think it’s a great report,” Peter Hepburn, a researcher with the Eviction Lab, said of the apartment association’s document. “The methodology is thorough and well described.”
According to Hepburn, the research that the apartment association did and the research that the Eviction Lab does is similar. One difference, however, is that the Eviction Lab looks at overall data while the apartment association took a deep dive into each case.
“There is data that is available in court records that is not always available in court data,” Hepburn said. “The apartment association intentionally sought out that information, which is important as well.”
The Eviction Lab collects and compiles national eviction data, going back to 1990. The site allows users to look at where evictions are occurring and who in those places are most affected.
The Eviction Lab was born out of Matt Desmond’s book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” which examined evictions in the poorest areas of Milwaukee. It follows eight families struggling to pay rent to their landlords.
“People wanted to know if the struggles in Milwaukee were unusual, and the federal government collects little to no data on evictions,” Hepburn said. “Now that we’ve created this database, we can look at the risk factors leading people to evictions and the consequences of being evicted.”
Hepburn said while the apartment association might focus on those landlords who lose money when evicting, Eviction Lab examines cases where judgments are more than the requested amount.
The apartment association found that the average amount requested in an eviction complaint from a landlord is $1,436 and the average judgment granted is $2,672 when lost rent and damages are sought.
Giese said the report shows that landlords are not evicting for small sums as others suggest.
“We just want people to think more critically about what evictions look like for all parties,” he said.
He said the association is currently working on a report analyzing Milwaukee’s Right to Counsel program, which provides nocost legal representation for low-income residents facing eviction or foreclosure. Right to Counsel Milwaukee is for Milwaukee County residents at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines and is administered by United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. The Legal Aid Society provides legal advice, representation and community legal education.
The association is looking at how having legal representation is affecting the turnout of eviction cases.