Collaborative article by: Susan Wolfgram, Paul Savides, Debbie Gough, Judi Moseley, and Lynn Buske
“One eviction can change the trajectory of an individual or a family’s life and multiple evictions in a community are destabilizing.” -Susan Wolfgram, Co-Chair JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force
“As a social worker, I routinely hear the stories of failed housing applications, evictions, hopes and then disappointments. It is nearly impossible for some people to obtain housing independently using traditional methods. The Tenant Landlord Resource Center is crucial for the success of both the tenant and the landlord.” – Karen Petersin, Chippewa Valley Street Ministry
The need for a Tenant Landlord Resource Center has been evident for many years but has been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. Our JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force was receiving an influx of messages asking for consultation and assistance regarding tenant rights as the threat of eviction loomed and folks were losing or leaving their jobs. We were made aware of the fact that there were no eviction prevention or mediation services before a person was involved in the eviction legal process. One eviction can change the trajectory of an individual or a family’s life and multiple evictions in a community are destabilizing. Early intervention between tenants and landlords before the word ‘eviction’ is even spoken benefits everyone.
Social determinants of health are the conditions in which an individual is born, lives, learns, plays, works, and ages that ultimately impact overall health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes. These conditions are shaped by key social factors, and the fundamental key social factor is having a stable home. Housing is one of the best researched social determinants of health, and selected housing interventions for low-income people have been found to improve health outcomes and decrease health care costs (Housing and Health: An Overview of the Literature, Health Affairs Health Policy Brief, June 7, 2018. DOI: 10.3777/hpb20180313.396577).
According to the most recent data from the American Community Survey (ACS) which is from 2019 (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/eauclairecountywisconsin), 35.8% of households in Eau Claire County rent, while 43.4% of households within the city rent. This compares to 32.9% in all of Wisconsin. There is a significant difference when you look at race and ethnicity. Nearly 40% of white residents rent, while 61.3% of non-white residents of the county rent. A center that helps disproportionately impacted renters of color and the landlords renting to them has the potential of decreasing that disparity.
The data from the American Community Survey (ACS) shows that there are several reasons why Eau Claire County residents rent at a higher rate than elsewhere:
- 15.5% of city residents live below the poverty line, while 9.8% of county residents do. This compares to 10.0% in Wisconsin and 11.4% in the U.S.
- The city’s population has increased by 7% in the last ten years, the number of housing units increased by only 4%.
- To buy a median-priced house in Eau Claire, which is estimated at $230,000 (Billie Hufford, City of Eau Claire Associate Planner, presentation to Women’s Giving Circle, March 4, 2022), a household would have to have an income of $92,000-to $115,000, while the median income in the county is $62,000.
- Eau Claire has a low vacancy rate of 5%.
Rental data is not current. The median rent reported for 2019 for Eau Claire County was $823 but as is true elsewhere in the country, rents have skyrocketed during the pandemic, so that $823 would now be enough for only a studio apartment. Even that would require a salary of $32,000. So currently those households at 50% of our median income could only afford a studio apartment, if they could find one (ACS).
Trying to find housing to rent and/or navigate the various programs that help is often too difficult for the people who need help the most. There are no standard applications or procedures, and even for the knowledgeable, filling out the forms correctly can be challenging. Once housed, many of the most vulnerable have trouble understanding the conditions of their lease or what they need to do if they encounter problems with their apartment or landlord.
During an affordable housing crisis, as we have just described, our community needs education, resources and referral, mediation services, housing navigation, and eviction prevention services. It is much harder for everyone, but particularly low-income residents to find housing. Once they find it, it is extremely important that they maintain that housing, because finding new housing, particularly if they have an eviction or a bad reference from a landlord, will be difficult if not impossible.
The scope of help received will vary as people will use a variety of our services. Some will find what they need just by using just our website; others will need short consultations; some will use the services of a housing navigator; and ultimately, some will need mediation services. There are a few data points we can use. There are currently 390 households on the Eau Claire City waiting list, which is closed, and on the county list, which is also closed. There are currently 192 households on what is referred to as “the coordinated entry list” that agencies receiving HUD money must use when placing the homeless. An additional 127 households are on the “prevention list,” which includes those who are not “technically homeless,” living in hotels or couch surfing. The Eau Claire Area School District reported that 830 children identified being homeless sometime during the school year. Many of these children are living in hotels or with family/friends. Although they do not meet the HUD eligibility of “homeless,” they are experiencing the effect of homelessness nonetheless. According to the homeless coordinator, these families may have the financial ability to obtain housing, but they lack the time or knowledge to find an apartment or house.
A particularly telling statistic relates to evictions. In 2021, Eau Claire County had 137 filings for evictions, and 12.41% of the filings resulted in a judgement; statewide that number was 9.8%, which is significantly lower (Wisconsin Data Eviction Data Project, Department of Administration https://doa.wi.gov/Pages/Wisconsin-Eviction-Data-Project.aspx). Early intervention in landlord/renter disputes through mediation should be able to decrease both the number of filings and the number of judgments. Considering the services the TLRC will provide and the sheer number of those who are in need, we believe hundreds of people will be served initially, and as the TLRC becomes an established organization in Eau Claire, those numbers will continue to rise, as the need for training, mediation, resources, coordination, and advocacy will always be needed.
WHAT WILL THE TENANT LANDLORD RESOURCE CENTER DO?
It will serve as a “front door” to improve awareness of resources and direct people to available services. The center will serve as a resource for both tenants and landlords to prevent problems and to mediate as necessary. The TLRC will be in a centrally located physical location near other social assistance service providers. It will provide landlord and renter education, counseling, and assistance programs that will focus on providing information, skills, and resources to existing renters as well as those seeking housing to help them navigate the lease process, know their rights and responsibilities, and learn how to be a responsible tenant.
Specifically, the TLRC will have the following services:
A Comprehensive Website for Renters and Landlords
Many renters don’t know where to go for information. A comprehensive, easily understood website will launch in October. It will provide information to tenants on a range of issues, such as: how to find a rental unit; where to find subsidized housing; how to read a lease; rights as a tenant from the application process through to the end of the lease; how to be a good tenant; and what to do if problems with a landlord arise.
It will also be a resource for landlords. Many new and/or small property owners need help understanding the laws and ordinances; knowing how to protect themselves and their properties; knowing how to deal with issues related to tenants; and knowing what to do to avoid having to evict a tenant. The TLRC will provide sample forms and letters.
The TLRC will also be a crucial resource for social service agencies that can provide the money for renters but don’t have the knowledge or staff to help them with the process of renting.
Tenant/Landlord Mediation is a voluntary process in which people with a disagreement meet with a trained, impartial mediator. The mediator listens to both sides and guides the parties in clarifying and discussing the issues, identifying areas of agreement, developing possible solutions, and writing their own mutually satisfactory agreement. Mediation can serve as an inexpensive alternative to small claims court, eviction, or other outcomes that may be undesirable for one or both sides. We will not provide legal counsel but will refer clients to lawyers willing to help and contract for our own consultation as needed.
The TLRC will offer education to tenants, landlords, and the community. Tenant education will also include referral to other resources such as Rent Smart (https://finances.extension.wisc.edu/programs/rent-smart/?ss_redir=1). The center will provide landlord education and work to help landlords understand the benefit of such classes when screening tenants. The TLRC will offer community education and awareness on various topics of interest.
Individual Consultation/Housing Navigation
Many people are completely overwhelmed by the entire process of renting and need to sit down with someone. The TLRC will provide what is called “housing navigation,” by helping a household develop a housing plan, address barriers identified during the plan and acquire documentation, and complete housing applications, some of which are extremely difficult to understand. While certain HUD programs provide such services, most people do not have access. While we will contract with a person for this service, in most cases we will use social work interns or peer mentors.
We may provide staff assistance and/or peer mentor support dedicated to such things as investigating tenant harassment complaints, providing support through the eviction process, or other issues that may arise when a renter may feel as though their rights are being violated.
JONAH has been a fiscal agent in the formation of the TLRC and is committed to continue to provide this support until the TLRC is financially stable enough to form its own 501c3.
The development of the Tenant Landlord Resource Center has been led by three dedicated people, the core team of the Affordable Housing Task force: Susan Wolfgram, Judi Moseley, and Paul Savides. These three people have effectively served as a board of directors.
This core group of three will be expanded to a board of five directors who will develop the governing structure necessary to apply to be a 501c3. This board will be responsible for making sure all aspects of the project are completed.
An advisory committee with nine members will be established, representing various constituencies crucial to the operation of the TLRC. This committee will meet monthly initially and then every other month. These will include:
- Representatives from non-governmental organizations that provide low -income housing or work with the homeless such as Western Dairyland, United Cerebral Palsy, Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, Bolton House, Beacon House, Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, and the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.
- Representatives of government agencies providing Section 8 or other low-income housing.
- The City-County Health department that inspects rental properties.
- Eau Claire County Department of Human Services.
- Veteran Services.
- University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (their Student Senate has indicated an interest in partnering with TLRC to help student renters).
- CC We Adapt, providing peer mentor service. (https://www.ccweadapt.com/), and
- Landlords—it will be crucial to have landlords “at the table.”
The composition of this advisory committee could change, but these are the partners with whom we anticipate working.
A program coordinator will be hired, first at half time basis. They will be responsible for running the office, answering phone calls and emails and serving as the first contact with clients, recruiting and training volunteers and interns, working with JONAH to monitor the budget, and doing payroll. They will also refer clients to the appropriate person or to information on the webpage.
The TLRC is planning on having the following contracted services:
- Mediators, including the trainer (who has already been trained), will receive stipends.
- A lawyer will consult with the mediation team. Two lawyers have indicated a willingness to do so. We have an in-kind commitment of 50% discounted rates for their services.
- A Housing Navigator will consult as needed and train interns/volunteers to assist those seeking housing counseling services to secure affordable, permanent housing
- Two Peer Mentors will receive stipends to serve as support persons to those going through an eviction process.
- Bilingual support.
- A person will be hired to run the rent-smart workshops once they are up and running.
- Interns: two interns from the UW-EC Social Work department will be selected. These students will be trained to do initial consultations, help people with applications, etc.
JONAH is proud to announce that we have received funding from County ARPA dollars to move forward with the start-up phase at Grace Lutheran Church (http://ectlrc.org/). Currently we have no set hours; however, when the Coordinator is hired, all information, including hours, will be posted on the website. It is our intent that the TLRC will assist in keeping people in affordable homes, prevent evictions, and thus contribute to our community by preventing homelessness.