RENT STRIKE IN ACTION: Rent Withholding Wins Repairs in Milwaukee

By | April 30, 2021

Earlier this year when the economic crisis and pandemic hit, word of a Rent Strike rippled across the country. Tenants in Wisconsin were inspired, and 700 joined the Facebook group Wisconsin Rent Strike 2020 to encourage and help one another get organized. Renters shared resources in the group, and held virtual meetings where tenants across the state organizing under their landlords could come together and strategize.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin was one of the key US cities that saw evictions skyrocket as soon as state and federal bans expired. Now with the temporary CDC eviction moratorium in place, it’s more important than ever that we start organizing in our buildings and gain experience fighting collectively so we are prepared to resist a potential flood of evictions down the line. Amara, a member of the newly founded Trike Tenants Council in Milwaukee, reports on how her building formed their council, won building repairs, and fought off the landlord’s attacks!

Having rented from a slumlord for a few years now in Milwaukee, I was excited to jump in on the Wisconsin Rent Strike 2020 meetings and find out how to fight back. On one of these calls, a tenant shared that through the City of Milwaukee website you can look up information about your building, including current/previous owners, purchase dates, and code violations. After a lot of digging, a fellow tenant and I discovered who our landlord actually is – for the first time after 4 years renting from him! We found several unaddressed communal code violations filed in September 2019, which legally allows for all 24 of our building’s units to apply for rent withholding through the city until the repairs are adequately addressed.

Why was knowing this information useful? Since moving in, tenants have bemoaned moving into filthy units and having maintenance repairs ignored and neglected. If our landlord’s maintenance department does ever make it for a unit’s repair, slipshod jobs cause tenants to regret having contacted them in the first place. Constant runarounds of excuses for why repairs cannot be made, including outright lying about what’s legally required, are the norm. Some tenants have even resorted to just repairing their units themselves out of their own pockets. Leaks, dry rot, windows without screens, windows that don’t open, soggy walls, and mold are just a few of the hazardous conditions we’ve been living with, while the landlord lines his pockets with money that he refuses to put back in maintaining the building.

After years of frustration, the right conditions, and a group to organize with, I went to work writing and distributing a letter around my building raising the demand for a building-wide rent strike. Understanding that not everybody would be ready to take this step, I also stressed the need for us to come together to get our maintenance issues addressed. Responses came in expressing excitement about the prospect of a rent strike, but it was clear that the key issues tenants were willing to fight for were building conditions.

Around this same time, we discovered another group had come together to organize renters in Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU). After contacting them about what was going on with our building, we held a virtual meeting with one of their organizers about how our building can proceed.

We decided to apply for the rent withholding program through the City of Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS). Though a couple of our building’s organizers were fearful to apply, three units, including my own, proceeded and were approved starting July 1, 2020. This meant the city would hold our rent until our landlord adequately addressed our communal code violations.

We also set up a private Facebook group for our building’s tenants, where a majority of units joined. Here, we posted updates about our building’s repairs, planned meetings, and discussed the issues in our units and the building. We also made an effort to get to know our neighbors more by introducing ourselves in the hallways, discussing our organizing, and asking questions about their experience living under the landlord. Printed materials were distributed under the tenants’ doors for those who don’t use social media.

Our landlord and his family’s property management agency responded with a vengeance. For the first two months of rent withholding, they tried to go into my bank account to double dip rental payments. They also contacted a fellow organizer and berated him for exercising his legal rights to organize the building and withhold his rent. Gaslighting us was continuous, repeatedly claiming to both us and the DNS that we never contacted their agency about repairs despite documentation to the contrary, and the harassment and slander were ever-escalating. They sent one of our organizers a letter stating that he owes two months back rent for the two months he had already paid the DNS.

In an attempt to punish all tenants in retaliation for our organizing, they even raised rent on nearly the entire building with rent increases ranging from $20 to $50 more per month on an already high average rent of $764/month for a dilapidated building. This attempt at divide-and-conquer backfired, and made tenants angry at the landlord instead of at the tenant organizers. Our landlord’s retaliation peaked at attempting to evict the three units in the rent withholding program.

The DNS rescinded both the rent increases and the eviction attempts. But this didn’t happen by itself! We had to put in work researching the laws and our rights, holding the DNS’ feet to the fire and, most importantly, doing it collectively! Unfortunately, the DNS didn’t feel like a place that tenants could turn to in dealing with a bad landlord. Twice they attempted to pass our landlord’s inspection despite repairs not being made. Tenants diligently recorded videos of code violations and emailed them to the DNS. If we hadn’t applied pressure ourselves, we would not have been able to win the repairs. This goes to show we can’t rely on state agencies to defend our rights – the only way we can guarantee tenants’ voices are heard is through determined organizing!

Despite how difficult it was dealing with the DNS, our landlord, and his family agency, we saw the results of our organizing! We forced our landlord to repair the leaking basement, replace a busted railing, patch up crumbling walls, update windows, and rescind our rent increases and attempted evictions!

With this hard-fought victory under our belts, we voted to officially call ourselves Trike Tenants Council. Since our landlord owns hundreds of units across several other buildings, we plan to expand our council to include other tenants in other buildings who may be experiencing similar maintenance issues or eviction attempts.

We continue to work in our building through a core group of organizers to grow our council to a majority and to get every tenant’s repair demands met. While the CDC ban protects many of us against eviction for the time being, we know that by building our organization we are creating a tool we can later use to fight evictions. We also continue to work with Wisconsin Rent Strike 2020, alongside MATU, and in solidarity with renters in Milwaukee and across the country!