2023 Report - Other Effects of Rental Assistance Programs

“Junk Fees” and Court Costs add significant obstacles for already rent-burdened households and are often difficult for renters to challenge with their landlord.

In our first report back in November 2022, one of our central highlights was on the prevalence of fees charged by landlords that either don’t match the provisions of the rental agreement or are not allowable under state and local laws and regulations. With the rise of programs providing direct financial assistance to households, the community had a unique opportunity to increase the oversight and scrutiny of these charges while also providing increased education to tenants about the requirements under the law and advocacy from tenant attorneys. This serves as an update to our previous report and an overview of where “junk fees” and court costs stand as of the end of 2023.

Late Rent Fees, Punitive Charges, and “Junk Fees”
In our original overview of these issues in 2022, our staff identified a high prevalence in the amount and frequency of charges that appeared on rent ledgers provided by landlords that weren’t allowable under either the law or the rental agreement. At the time, we noted that for many renters, challenging the legitimacy of these charges was an often insurmountable obstacle for households that feared retaliation or nonrenewal of their agreement, even if they succeeded in getting their eviction case dismissed. The most common non-rent charges we saw at the time (either allowable or not allowable under the program) were 1) excessive late rent fees, 2) escalating penalties without actual costs, 3) penalties for lacking renters insurance, and 4) excessive charges for bounced payments.

Over the course of the last year, the Tenant Resource Center and our funders have explored various solutions to reducing the frequency of charges that aren’t allowable, including changes to program parameters, increased advocacy from community partners, and additional investment in materials for tenants to self-advocate. To this end, the City of Madison and Dane County added restrictions to late rent fees in the program requirements by placing a cap on fees. In our review process, our team has greatly expanded the level of detailed examination of charges to ensure consistency and alignment with the rental agreement. We’ve expanded the depth and detail for information provided to tenants and landlords about any charges that have been withheld from rental assistance payments along with a clear pathway for additional payments to cover charges that are later found to be eligible with additional documentation. However, more work is needed to continue improving the ability for renters to self-advocate when it comes to “Junk Fees” and other unallowable costs. In the future, we hope to produce expanded packets with sample letters and information about the law to give renters the tools needed to identify and dispute these charges.

Court Costs, Attorneys Fees, and Service Fees
In our original overview back in 2022, we also highlighted the number of cases where landlords would pass on the costs associated with filing an eviction action in court to their tenants. While parties are generally expected to cover their own costs within eviction actions, we found that many landlords would continue to assess these charges onto their tenants regardless of whether or not the household had agreed to cover these charges as part of a resolution or if they were ever awarded by a judge. For many households, the level of rent burden is already far too high, so the additional costs continue to escalate an already tenuous issue.

Over the course of the last year, TRC staff and EDDP partner attorneys have increased awareness of these issues with court officials. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of households that contest these charges and seek a resolution with their landlord. However, there are still far too many cases where these charges remain on a tenant’s bill after court or where a tenant pays the cost for fear of retaliation.