The old saw quips that there are two seasons in Wisconsin: winter and construction. Depending on which part of the state you live in, the former is debatable, but the latter incontestable. From first thaw in April to first freeze and flake come sometime in fall, construction orange is ubiquitous and de rigueur. But while the ties to road construction and Governor Walker are as hot and heavy as the bituminous lathered on our highways, like greased palms giving the glad hand and thumbs up thick as thieves, the kind of reconstruction project I’m talking about is the incremental changes to the very demographic topography of our state. Today’s case in point? The state-sanctioned discrimination and disenfranchisement of tenants — yes, people (like me) who don’t own housing but instead rent an apartment. Enter Senate Bill 107, authored by Sen Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, and amended by Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, but the brainchild and bonnet bee of landlords,property owners, and the construction and building industries who lobbied hard and long that this be introduced. If passed (and by “if” I mean when, since the Republicans call all the shots — no punny reference to concealed carry intended), SB 107 would override local level decision-making concerning the rights of landlords and tenants. This is arguably the most egregious implication of the bill. What this underlies is saying the State of Wisconsin shall null and void local municipality laws governing landlord-tenant relations. Why isn’t this conspicuously contradictory to conservative ideology, I’m dying to know? This is [supposed to be] the very stuff they can’t [supposedly] stand: big government interfering at the local level. Where’s the disconnect?
Oh, right! The ‘p’ in GOP simply stands for profit; that’s all they care about. Maximum gain on minimum democracy.
It is not paranoia to assert that this bill has both the city of Madison and Dane County in mind. Said executive director of the Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin, Nancy Jensen, “We would like to see more standardization across the state rather than an island in the city of Madison in terms of landlord tenant laws.” Never mind that Madison has had unique and carefully resurrected landlord-tenant relations and laws on the books for almost 20 years now. Mayor Paul Soglin remonstrated to The Capital Times: “Decades of thought and study went into Madison’s housing ordinances. They were crafted after extensive discussion with landlords and tenants. We are surprised that state leaders who profess to trust local government and believe in local control would introduce this measure in the first place, and, secondly, would fail to provide an extensive deliberative process so that cities throughout Wisconsin could discuss it.”
Some of the new changes include but are not limited to: tenants would have to disclose their Social Security numbers on their applications and prove that their monthly income is at least three times as much as their rent. The backers of the bill argue that this will weed out undocumented workers. What?!? Undocumented workers living in our hoods? Where?!? Do the police know about this?!? Oh my God! Someone call Homeland Security — pronto! ¡Llamar a I.N.S.!
As for the new equation of earning three times your rent, let’s look at this. Let’s say my rent for a 1-BDRM is $800 a month (and for good measure we’ll say heat and hot water are included, though that’s a rarity here in Madison at least). I’d need to make at least $2400 in my take-home pay to qualify. I don’t — not by a long shot. I didn’t even when I was a member of AFSCME. (Incidentally, most state workers who are in unions don’t make that amount.) To say nothing of life’s myriad other fiscal matters — kids, car payments, clothes, food, student loans. (Please, if you’re a student, good luck finding off-campus housing!) But this is why some landlords require cosigners, if there’s a fear that a tenant would be in jeopardy of coming up with rent. Why is that insufficient? And what about folks (like me) who don’t make/ have never made three times the cost of monthly rent, yet always pay their rent in full on time every time? Past history means nothing here?
More seriously, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly one out of three Wisconsin households are renters (701, 300). Of these, nearly one out of four (166,100) pay more than half of their total money on rent alone. That’s a gobsmacking statistic that should shut up most tough love naysayers and shut down this draconian bill flat dead.
But the real meat and potatoes of this bill are the powers it invests in property owners. Finally, we’d be giving them the tools they’ve been so long deprived! Amongst innumerable others, they would be able to deny an application based on a prior conviction or arrest (even if the charges were dropped); discriminate against applicants receiving public assistance (such as Section 8 housing subsidies); permit a landlord to enter a property without a minimum 24-hour notice; and allow a landlord to show a property for future leasing at any time during a current lease’s stature. This last point means that in effect your landlord could begin showing the cool flat or shithole rat trap the day after you yourself move into it, the lease to which the ink is still wet. Or if not the next day, any day during that yearlong lease — and do so without giving you the 24-hour courtesy heads up. Are you in the middle of something? (Something, say, unmentionable?) Feeling ill? Family visiting? So what?!? Who cares?! You’re just a renter; you got no rights! Don’t like it? Too bad!
In 2009 the Dane County Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System reported that 50 percent of young African-American males are in prison or on probation in Dane County alone, while across the state of course, Wisconsin leads the nation in black male incareration rates. Let’s just cut to quick: the Republicans are endorsing the cycle of recidivism. If a property owner can deny an applicant based on a past conviction, irrespective of how long ago that was, demonstrations of rehabilitation, or — watch out for the nuance here — exculpatory evidence that subsequently acquits an inmate, then the applicant has no chance at all towards navigating social mobility, which goes a long way toward self-improvement. Instead, he or she will be relegated to the seedier parts of town where Republicans fear to tread, where the influence of and access to criminal behavior is already ratcheted. Why not pin ribbons on their clothes or Scarlet-like letters? It’s a kind of invisible but indelible branding. You’re a con for life; you may have done your time, but you’re forever paying for that crime. Further isolation in society, once released from prison, is excessive in and of itself, but also deleterious: more hurdles to successful reintegration to our communities, such as access to housing, will all but ensure its failure.
Past history means everything here.
The late Kurt Vonnegut invoked the humorist Kin Hubbard a couple times in his books (notably Slaughterhouse-V), who quipped “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” Today it is, and we might as well substitute “disgrace” with crime, because being poor is so tantamount to being illegal that it might as well be. Feeling on the skids? Go get your bindle in a bundle, paupers and tramps, hobos and vagabonds of the world, unite!
By actively discriminating against Section 8 recipients the Republicans are not only exhibiting their contempt towards the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, they are endorsing essential shtetls apart and away from the gentry — hence the term gentrification. While we are investing in the systemic recidivism of certain individuals, we are simultaneously divesting in community diversification. Why not just come clean and say that Wisconsin is open to segregation, not just racial — but of the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled, too? Section 8 vouchers offer affordable housing options for families in need to rise above the cesspools of poverty and crime and the endemic indignities inherent to so-called benign neglect. And why is it we’re giddy as all get-out to shell out vouchers to attend charter schools on the taxpayer’s dime, yet discriminate against the poor and the powerless who are just looking for a better place to call home? What does this say about our priorities?
Supporters of the bill actually are claiming that there are sufficient protections to tenants already in state and federal “fair” housing — wild-eyed utopias like not being (actively) discriminated against based on race, age, sexual orientation, etc. Quit your whining, liberals! Besides, they counter, local (i.e., Madison) interventions go too far and infringe on the rights of property owners. But what about tenants’ rights? An apartment is someone’s home, their privacy. That it happens to be a commodity owned by another is a relatively necessary evil under capitalism. But this essential insecurity shouldn’t be a constant reminder to all tenants literally lorded over them!
Forgive me, my worship, for speaking me peace. Would your reverence or milady care for another brandy and tobacco? I have your powder-horn and snifters at the ready! If not, I shall be in the livery when you need me.