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Wisconsin renters wary as eviction ban nears end

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A “for rent” sign is seen outside of a home on Griffin Street in Milwaukee on June 29, 2021. With long waits for rental assistance and the growing tide of evictions looming, some renters are questioning how Milwaukee County and the city will keep thousands of residents afloat. (Isaac Wasserman / Wisconsin Watch)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions that was enacted last year is scheduled to expire Saturday, after the Biden administration extended the original date by a month. The moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September has been the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and have fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing that they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access nearly $47 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants said the distribution of the money had been slow and that more time was needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to oust tenants who were behind on their rents.

Even with the delay, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. as of July 5 said they would face eviction within the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Wisconsin:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF OTHER EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued an order in March 2020 barring landlords from evicting tenants as the pandemic began. The order expired that May, though, and the state Supreme Court ruled in March 2021 that Evers can’t issue multiple emergency orders for a single crisis, preventing him from imposing another state moratorium, the governor’s office said.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

Evers’ administration has relied heavily on federal pandemic relief money to help tenants make ends meet. The Department of Administration dedicated about $35 million from the CARES Act last year to help roughly 13,000 tenants pay overdue rent and utility bills. That assistance ended at the end of the year.

The Trump administration allocated about $385 million for rental assistance in Wisconsin in December. About $65 million of that has gone directly to the state’s six most populous jurisdictions: Brown, Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties and the cities of Madison and Milwaukee. The remaining money was earmarked for the rest of the state.

So far this year, about $44 million has gone to roughly 12,000 tenants in smaller communities. DOA Secretary Joel Brennan said he didn’t have exact figures on spending in the six metropolitan jurisdictions, but he estimated that a total of about 20,000 tenants have received assistance since this April.

Renters who earn up to 80% of their county’s median income can apply for aid through local social organizations that are acting as conduits between the state and tenants. The money can be used to cover up to 15 months of rent.

The Biden administration has allocated another $250 million for rental assistance in Wisconsin through the American Rescue Plan Act, but the state has received only a small amount of that aid so far, Brennan said.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides free legal services to low-income people, has twice asked the state Supreme Court to halt all eviction proceedings in light of the CDC moratorium. The conservative-controlled court refused both times, saying in its latest denial in May that the Legislature, not the court, should decide whether to tilt the balance in eviction proceedings in favor of tenants.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN THE STATE’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Rents in the Milwaukee area are below the national average for the largest metro areas, but they are increasing. As of June, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis metropolitan area was $1,599, which was 4.2% higher than last year, according to a July 15 report from Realtor.com. That is below the national average of $1,770. The overall median cost for an apartment rental in the Milwaukee metro area was $1,395, up 3.3% from last year. The national average was $1,575.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

Thousands of Wisconsin residents fear they could be evicted soon, according to a survey the U.S. Census Bureau released July 5. Nearly 14,000 Wisconsin adults surveyed said they felt it was “very likely” they would be evicted within the next two months. Another 14,300 said they felt it was “somewhat likely” they would be evicted. Only about 12,000 of those respondents — less than half who feared eviction — said they were employed. The survey did not break down responses by specific metropolitan areas in Wisconsin.

Brennan said it’s difficult to project how many people might lose their homes. The DOA set up a system this spring to monitor eviction filings in court, and the state will share that data with local housing advocates in the hopes that they can reach out to tenants and let them know about the government aid.

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