Is Milwaukee's Eviction Spike 'The Canary In The Coal Mine'?

By Emma Cueto | July 12, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Wisconsin joined numerous states in passing protections against evictions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but after its moratorium expired in late May, the city of Milwaukee saw a major spike in eviction cases, a trend that some worry might be repeated elsewhere as more eviction bans come to an end.

The moratoriums on eviction proceedings that states implemented, both to protect tenants affected by the economic fallout from the pandemic and to protect public health, were only set to last a few months. And while some have been extended, many are set to expire this summer and some have already ended.

Shortly after the moratorium ended in Wisconsin, evictions in Milwaukee shot up immediately, data shows.

"We're treating Milwaukee as the canary in the coal mine," said Alieza Durana of Princeton University's Eviction Lab.

Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin with almost 600,000 residents, saw 1,447 eviction cases filed in June, according to Eviction Lab, 17% above the city's usual average.

Legal Action of Wisconsin, a legal aid group that handles eviction cases among other matters, also recorded a similar spike. An attorney with the organization said that according to its numbers, evictions in the state were up 24% in June 2020 over June 2019, and up 26% in Milwaukee.

This follows the months of April and May, when the moratorium was in effect for most of the time, when only 76 total cases were filed.

As in other cities, evicted tenants are disproportionately Black. In June alone, of the 1,447 evictions, 978 were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Mark Silverman, an attorney with Legal Action Wisconsin, told Law360 that he did not see the recent spike as the system simply "catching up" with the numbers the city would normally have seen by this point in the year.

"My sense is that it's an increase in new filings," he said.

Silverman, who normally focuses on public housing cases, said that from his perspective the increase seems to be driven by private landlords, not from public or subsidized housing. He noted that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act provides some additional protections to tenants in housing funded or subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

Robert Flessas, an attorney who represents private landlords in Milwaukee eviction cases, said that he doesn't see private landlords as rushing to evictions, either, however.

Flessas told Law360 that he advises all his clients to work with tenants and create a payment plan for back rent, including during the eviction moratorium. In most cases, he said, those efforts have been successful.

"They do try to work things out with tenants," he said of his clients. "They're just trying to be fair with them. … The ones where we're filing evictions, the tenants are being unreasonable, and then there's no choice."

Flessas also expressed concerns about the way the process has been playing out in Milwaukee court and whether courts were being fair to landlords.

Though both Flessas and Silverman said that the courts have so far done a good job of arranging and handling remote hearings from a technical perspective, Flessas said that he has had issues with the approach of the court commissioners who are currently handling initial appearances.

In one of his recent cases, Flessas said, the tenant didn't show up to remote hearing before the court commissioner, which should have resulted in an immediate default judgment. The commissioner did grant the landlord a writ of restitution, allowing the landlord to evict the tenant, but stayed the writ for two weeks rather than letting it go into effect immediately, a decision Flessas believes is unlawful.

Milwaukee County, he said, is notoriously tenant-friendly.

Silverman also told Law60 that there have been a number of landlords — and a few landlord associations in the city — that have been proactive about working with tenants and trying to make allowances for the hardships people are facing as a result of the pandemic.

Without that — and without some federal funds aimed at helping tenants pay the rent — Silverman said, the situation would be much worse than it currently is.

However, despite the additional funds, the understanding landlords, and the reportedly tenant-friendly inclinations of the courts, the eviction numbers in Milwaukee have observers concerned, not just about the city but about other places where moratoriums have recently ended or will expire soon.

Silverman noted that, across the board, things are "more dire" for people who fall behind on the rent. Many Legal Action Wisconsin clients have lost their jobs or seen their hours cut as a result of the pandemic, he explained. They are therefore not in a good position to catch up on rent payments or work with landlords.

Durana said that in her view, it seems as though many landlords were waiting for the moratorium to lift so that they could file.

"We saw an uptick in eviction almost immediately, which is unusual because most landlords file in the first two weeks of the month, not the last two weeks of the months," she said. "So we think that they were waiting to file."

Eviction Lab was expecting to see similar trends in Richmond, Virginia; Houston and Saint Louis as those moratoriums expire. However, Durana said, government officials could take actions to mitigate the fallout, such as extending moratoriums.

"We suspect that Milwaukee is the beginning, but that will depend on what actions are taken this month and next month," she said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Beta
Ask a question!