2023 Report - Housing Displacement Outside of Court

In the previous issue spotlights, we endeavored to tell the stories of those who faced eviction in 2023: who they were, where they lived, and what happened in their cases. But the staggering frequency of eviction this year is still merely a facet of a larger, more hidden story of housing instability across Dane County.

This story is more difficult to uncover. Tenants who feel they must immediately move after receiving a 5-day notice, or who have had their locks illegally changed by their landlords, or who forgo necessities like medical care so they can pay rent – these stories are not recorded by the system as a whole.

These situations are not few and far between; they’re widespread. Tenants who do not have an eviction court date but still live under the threat of eviction meet with TRC’s housing counselors every day. Eviction was by far the most frequent issue that housing counselors assisted tenants with: out of more than 2,000 tenants that talked with a housing counselor, a third had questions regarding eviction.

This includes:

  • 461 tenants who were concerned about eviction notices;
  • 492 tenants who were concerned about being evicting due to non-payment of rent and/or who were seeking financial assistance; and
  • 71 tenants who were concerned about their landlords illegally evicting them.

Our Housing Counselors routinely connect with tenants to provide information about what to expect during the eviction process and what steps they can take to protect their housing. However, during these interactions, many tenants express serious concerns about the impacts of having an eviction on their record, even in cases where the household expresses that they have strong defenses to their case. After talking to our team about their rental rights, many tenants discover issues with the balances owed to their landlord, or identify building inspection issues where they may be eligible for rent abatement, or spot deficiencies with the service of paperwork within the case.

Experience tells us that most of these tenants will not be summoned to eviction court. For example, Housing Counselors consulted with 140 tenants about eviction at our offices between August and October. Only a quarter of these tenants ended up having an eviction filed against them.

For some, this is because their issue was resolved: they hammered out a payment plan with their landlords, for instance, or they successfully invoked their rights as a tenant. But a number of these tenants still have their housing in jeopardy, have an uncured eviction notice hanging over them, or have been forced to vacate their home and community.

Education and legal advocacy can greatly improve housing stability for tenants who have not had an eviction filed against them. EDDP attorney partners represented tenants in a number of eviction diversion cases in 2023 to prevent evictions from being filed.

In addition to more than 100 cases that Attorney Carousel Bayrd of Community Justice, Inc. represented in eviction court last year, she also advocated for 20 tenants outside of court, with the vast majority of these cases achieving successful outcomes for tenants. A selection of these cases, summarized on the next page, demonstrate the precarious situations that tenants too frequently find themselves in when landlords can operate with massive power imbalances and little oversight. But they also demonstrate the power that knowing one’s rights – and enforcing them – can have.

Below are examples of how access to resources prior to an eviction filing has had an impact in six specific cases. We’ve modified the details slightly in situations where the details would uniquely identify a household to protect the anonymity of the individuals involved.

Case #1: Tenant had a month-to-month lease to rent a room in the landlord’s house. The landlord then changed the locks and kicked the tenant out in the middle of the month.
Result: Landlord paid $1,170, for illegal eviction and double damages for ATCP code violation.

Case #2: New management company was charging the tenant for utilities that were not included in the lease and other illegal fees. New management company also violated the Safe at Home state program by releasing the tenant’s name and address to the utility company, even though the tenant told the new management that they were a Safe at Home participant.
Result: Landlord refunded tenant all overcharges, and landlord removed tenant’s information from utilities. A letter issued to the landlord stated that the tenant may move out given the safety violation, so that option is left open at tenant’s discretion if they feel unsafe.

Case #3: Landlord provided an improper 30-day notice to terminate month to month lease while the tenant was in the hospital.
Result: Prevented illegal termination of lease and removal of tenant’s property and worked out an agreement for the tenant to move out 3 months later so that the tenant had time to find a new place. Also coordinated repairs and inspection of the property with the Madison Building Inspector.

Case #4: Landlord provided 14-day and 30-day notice to terminate lease for criminal activity. Tenant was the victim of the crime.
Result: Stopped landlord from filing eviction against the tenant and negotiated a move out date for tenant to vacate before eviction filing. Wrote two letters to the landlord explaining how it is illegal to terminate a lease for criminal activity when the tenant is the victim of the activity. The tenant secured new housing, vacated, and no eviction was filed.

Case #5: Landlord illegally filed and obtained eviction judgment in 2020 after tenant moved out. The eviction record has prevented the tenant from securing housing, has prompted collection agencies to pursue debt, and has impacted the tenant’s credit. Tenant only learned of the 2020 judgment when they applied for new housing in 2023 and was denied.
Result: Eviction case was successfully reopened and the eviction judgment vacated. Tenant’s name was also redacted, meaning landlords can no longer find this eviction online and deny them housing. Documentation was also provided to the collection agency showing that the judgment was vacated and the collection agency stopped pursuing the debt and removed it from the tenant’s credit report.

Case #6: Landlord gave the tenant 30-day notice terminating tenancy for unauthorized guests at property.
Result: Letter written to landlord that the 30-day notice was invalid, the guest is a babysitter, and that they must stop any notices of filing for eviction. Eviction was not filed.

In these cases, positive outcomes were reached through access to resources early in the process. However, for many households these services are often lacking due to insufficient resources or capacity. Housing displacement is a costly issue for communities both in terms of the cost of homeless services and in people’s lives. In order to continue reducing the level of displacement prior to the court process, we need to invest additional resources in expanding programs that provide case management, legal services, housing navigation, and resource navigation.