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As Temperatures Fall, No Halt To Evictions Across Most Of The Country

Dec 18, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 7:02 am

Christine Thompson is eager to leave the two bedroom apartment she rents in a shabby house on the north side of Milwaukee. There are so many things wrong with the place.

"In the bathroom I have to turn my shower on in order for the light to come on. And when I turn the shower off, the light goes off," she says.

The apartment also has mice, cockroaches, and so many bedbugs that she and her sons — ages 3 and 7 — sleep on an air mattress on the dining room floor, where's there's no carpet. She also has no oven or stove, and water leaking from the ceiling.

But Thompson's search for a new place has hit a brick wall after her landlord recently filed an eviction case against her, saying she owes more than $3,000 in back rent. She says most landlords won't rent to her with a potential eviction on her record while others are demanding that she pay two months rent, plus a security deposit, up front, something she can't afford.

Thompson is hardly alone. There are about 12,000 eviction cases each year in Milwaukee County, and more than an estimated 2.7 million evictions across the country.

Many of those evictions take place in the winter, when temperatures fall below freezing. Some countries, such as France, Austria and Poland, prohibit removing people from their homes when it's so cold. But that's not the case in the United States. A few places, like Maryland and Washington, D.C., postpone evictions when it's below freezing and over the holidays, although those places are the exception rather than the rule.

In Wisconsin, the state legislature passed a law in 2011 that expressly prohibits local governments from imposing eviction moratoriums.

Pathway to homelessness

While many evicted tenants are able to move in with family or friends, or into cheaper apartments, some end up on the street.

Thompson is worried she'll be evicted and has been calling the local homeless shelters just in case she doesn't find another apartment.

"And they'll tell me to call back. They don't have any openings right now," she says. "They're all full. And I understand because it's the wintertime and a lot of homeless people are going to the shelters."

Shenise Morgan, a case manager with the Tenant Resource Center in Madison, knows how scary it can be to not have a place to live. For almost a year, she, her husband and their six children stayed in their car and a camper in a homeless encampment in the city when they couldn't find an apartment they could afford. They would sometimes turn the car engine on just to keep warm.

"I think it sucks. Winter time, especially in Wisconsin, is so cold," says Morgan. "A majority of people that's being evicted got kids, you know. It's heartless."

Today, Morgan helps families facing eviction proceedings in court. She says some of her clients mistakenly think they can't be evicted in winter.

"They's like 'I know my landlord's doing this illegally. They trying to evict us in the wintertime.' And we have to call them and let them know, no, that, that's law. They can," says Morgan.

Landlords also feel squeezed

Ed Hahlbeck, who has a building in Milwaukee with five rental units, is sympathetic when tenants have a hard time making the rent, and might give them some extra time to pay. But he says he can only do so much.

Hahlbeck evicted one tenant right before Thanksgiving because the man was a couple of months behind on rent and showed no signs of paying up.

"This particular tenant basically stole $2,000 from me. And again, people say, 'Well he's a landlord. He's got plenty of money and all that stuff.' Well, I don't. I'm just an average Joe," says Hahlbeck. "I've got a family. I've got three kids. I put 'em all through college. And this guy stole two thousand bucks from me. You know, I'll never get it back."

Hahlbeck says an eviction moratorium would mean even more months without receiving any rental income on a unit, even though he still has to pay the mortgage and other bills on the property.

If landlords like Hahlbeck go out of business, there will be even less affordable housing for low-income families, says Heiner Giese, an attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin. Both landlords and tenants agree that a lack of such housing is at the heart of the problem.

"We would have no problem with a moratorium. But the question is, who's going to pay for it," says Giese.

Giese says maybe the government should, but he admits that's unlikely.

For her part, Christine Thompson is hopeful she'll find another place, even if it busts her already tight budget. She makes little more than minimum wage working part-time at banquets and other events.

"I was telling my kids like if we have to move, we probably won't have a Christmas this year. But we're gonna make it. It's better to have a house than Christmas, anyway," she says.

But time is running short for Thompson. Her eviction case goes to court December 20th.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

An estimated 2.7 million renters in the United States face eviction every year, according to the real estate website Redfin. And many of those evictions take place in wintertime, when temperatures fall below freezing. Now, some countries, like France and Austria, prohibit kicking people out when it is so cold, but not in the U.S. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, few places here ban evictions in bad weather.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Christine Thompson can't wait to get out of the two-bedroom apartment she rents in a shabby house on the north side of Milwaukee

CHRISTINE THOMPSON: In the bathroom, I have to turn my shower on in order for the light to come on. And when I turn the shower off, the light goes off.

FESSLER: She also has mice, cockroaches and lots of bedbugs - so many, in fact, that she and her sons - ages 3 and 7 - sleep on an air mattress on the only floor without a carpet.

THOMPSON: And then this is my room. The light here doesn't work either.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It come on when it want to.

THOMPSON: Yeah, when it wants to.

FESSLER: But Thompson's search for a new place has hit a brick wall. Her landlord has filed an eviction case against her, saying she owes more than $3,000 in back rent. Thompson disputes that, but with an eviction pending, most other landlords won't rent to her. Others demand payments way out of her range. So Thompson's been calling the local homeless shelters.

THOMPSON: And they'll tell me to call back. They don't have any openings right now. They're all full. And I understand because it's the wintertime, and a lot of homeless people are going to the shelters.

FESSLER: And she's hardly alone. There are about 12,000 eviction cases each year in Milwaukee County. While many of those tenants move in with family or friends or into cheaper apartments, some do end up outside.

SHENISE MORGAN: I think it sucks. Wintertime, especially in Wisconsin, is so cold. You know, you've got - majority of people that's being evicted got kids, you know? It's heartless.

FESSLER: Shenise Morgan is with the Tenant Resource Center in Madison, where she helps families facing eviction. Morgan knows how scary that can be. For almost a year, she, her husband and their six children lived in their car and a camper when they couldn't find an apartment they could afford. They would turn on the car engine to keep warm. Morgan says some of her clients mistakenly think they can't be evicted in winter.

MORGAN: You know, they is like, I know my landlord's doing this illegally. They trying to evict us in the wintertime. And we have to call them and let them know, like, no, that's law. They can.

FESSLER: And that's pretty much the case around the country. Some places, like Maryland and Washington D.C., do postpone evictions when it's below freezing or over the holidays. But that's the exception. In Wisconsin, the state legislature passed a law six years ago that expressly prohibits local governments from imposing such moratoriums.

ED HAHLBECK: OK. That'll be one of the units you're spraying, but spray that one second. And you're doing apartment No. 4.

FESSLER: Ed Hahlbeck is what's known as a mom and pop landlord. He owns one building in Milwaukee with five rental units. He tries to give struggling tenants some leeway, but says you also have to look at it from the landlord's side. Hahlbeck evicted one tenant right before Thanksgiving because the man was a couple of months behind and showed no signs of paying up.

HAHLBECK: Again, people say, well, he's a landlord. He's got plenty of money and all that stuff. Well, I don't. I'm just an average Joe. And I got a family. I got three kids. I put them all through college. And this guy stole, you know, 2,000 bucks from me. You know, I'll never get it back.

FESSLER: Hahlbeck says an eviction moratorium would mean even more months without rent, even though he still has to pay his mortgage and other bills. Heiner Giese is an attorney with the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin. He says the irony is that if landlords like Hahlbeck go out of business, there will be even less affordable housing in the area for low-income families, which just about everyone agrees is at the root of the problem.

HEINER GIESE: We would have no problem with the moratorium. But the question is, who is going to pay for it?

FESSLER: He says maybe the government should, but admits that's unlikely. For her part, Christine Thompson's hopeful she'll find another place, even if it busts her already tight budget. She makes little more than minimum wage working part time at banquets and other events.

THOMPSON: I was telling my kids, like, if we have to move, we probably won't have a Christmas this year, but we going to make it. It's better to have a house than Christmas, anyway.

FESSLER: But she better find one soon. Her eviction case goes to court December 20.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF DONELL GRAY'S "CERTIFIED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.