As housing discrimination complaints rise in Wisconsin, sexual harassment a key factor

MADISON, Wis. — The number of housing discrimination complaints filed with the state of Wisconsin has risen over the last two years, according to recently-published data.

The Equal Rights Division of the state Department of Workforce Development has released a new research portal, tracking complaints for a number of state-level civil rights and equity laws.

Housing discrimination complaints took a notable rise in 2021, with 200 complaints filed with the state. This year is on track to meet a similar number, with 170 filed so far. Between 2012 and 2020, the state only averaged 94 complaints a year.

Experts attribute the rise to a combination of greater awareness of complaint processes, combined with housing changes brought on by the pandemic.

“It fluctuates based on a number of things, including the status of the economy and the pandemic,” said Erika Sanders with the Fair Housing Council, which investigates complaints for the state. “Because illegal housing discrimination is highly under-reported, we know that that number is an under-estimate of the scope of the problem.”

The most common types of discrimination in housing are based on disability and race, Sanders said. But a third type has rapidly increased during the pandemic: sexual harassment and discrimination.

“We’ve taken complaints from women who’ve been told that they need to send their housing provider nude photos in order to get a repair made. We’ve taken complaints from people who’ve been told that they’ll get a discount on their next month’s rent, or be permitted to pay next month’s rent late, in exchange for sexual favors,” Sanders explained.

“This has really been on the increase during the pandemic, as people have grown more financially vulnerable, they’ve lost their jobs, or their incomes have gone down, and they have no place else to go.”

Milwaukee-based attorney Rock Pledl specializes in disability discrimination and other types of civil rights litigation across Wisconsin. He just settled a case where a group of longtime female tenants faced sexual harassment from the agency that ran their housing.

“Those women were very reluctant to come forward. They feared no one would believe them. They feared that the landlord would retaliate, and they’d be you know, evicted,” Pledl said.

Most commonly, however, housing discrimination stems from disabilities, often involving rejection of support animals or other types of disability accommodations.

In one case Pledl is representing in Brown County, a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction siding with a family whose homeowners association is preventing them from building a fence in their own yard. Without the fence, multiple children with special needs in the family can’t safely use the yard.

While complaints often don’t end in the types of lawsuits Pledl often represents, most lawsuits start with a complaint investigation. Once it gets to the point of court, Pledl said, their firm generally wins the case.

“There usually is not a good reason for a landlord or whoever to deny an accommodation if the person has the right kind of documentation saying they have a disability related need,” Pledl said.

For victims of housing discrimination, the trauma can be severe and long-lasting. One Madison-based client, Sanders said, was discriminated against for being Black — and struggled to trust anyone after the ordeal.

“It really shaped in a negative way his perception of his world, and he lost a lot of trust in the world around him.”

Resources for filing housing discrimination complaints

File state complaint here

File federal complaint here

Contact the Fair Housing Council here