Eviction letters, a ‘trashed’ housing record: As eviction filings rise, a Fitchburg mother’s struggle for housing

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the national moratorium on evictions, eviction filings increased by at least 64% in Dane County

FITCHBURG, Wis. — Silvia Rodriguez fights back tears as she sorts through the letters from her landlord.

“I’ve had a lot of headaches every day. I haven’t been able to sleep because of the worry that I’ll have to move us out of here somehow, but I didn’t have a place to go.”

The Fitchburg mother has spent months hunting for a new place to live, after she says her apartment management at New Fountains Apartments in Fitchburg first refused to renew her lease then filed for an eviction because of three late rent payments during the pandemic. Speaking to News 3 Investigates with the help of an interpreter*, she says telling her story is both for herself and others like her.

“I couldn’t just not speak,” she said. “When people don’t speak out, people are going to be taken advantage of.”

With the help of the newly-launched UW Evictions Defense Clinic, an eviction filing against her got dismissed on September 28. Leading the clinic of seven law students, clinical instructor Prof. Erica Lopez says Rodriguez was their first client after the clinic went live around the time the national moratorium on evictions lifted at the end of August.

“We were able to help [Silvia] navigate the system and help her know she does have some protections,” Lopez explained. She says the landlord first didn’t renew her lease because of the late payments, tried to evict her, but continued to take her rent–thus creating a new tenancy. They had no case, Lopez said, and it was dismissed.

“Being late three times is arguably, during a pandemic, not a good reason,” Lopez said.

But in Dane County’s red-hot housing market, a dismissed eviction isn’t the end of the story for Silvia. She says her landlord hasn’t been in touch with her to confirm whether a letter they sent on September 29 (after the Sep. 28 dismissal), telling her to be out of her apartment by October 31, is valid. And as Silvia searches for a new home, another roadblock is cropping up and getting her rejected from every apartment she finds suitable: bad references from her current landlord.

“People kept rejecting my applications,” she said. When she confronted her landlord, she says she was told she was a bad tenant because of three late payments–for which she’d already paid the additional $50 late fees.

“So I said to her, ‘But goodness, it’s been a year of pandemic, we’ve had Covid.’ I tried to let her explain herself, and she said ‘No, you have to leave, you have to get out.'”

When reached for comment, New Fountains Apartment Homes tells a different story–one that doesn’t align with what either Silvia or her lawyer says happened. Property manager Michelle Aguilar said Silvia didn’t renew her lease, they leased the place to a new tenant, and that forced them to file an eviction when Silvia “refused to move out.”

That’s not what Silvia or her lawyer says happened; Prof. Lopez says property management delayed references that caused Silvia to lose out on multiple places, and used her late payments to deny a request for a transfer to a two-bedroom.

Aguilar didn’t respond to questions about what Silvia’s current status was, or whether they were leaving tenants with bad references when they tried to find new housing during a non-renewal or eviction. Silvia says their bad references to prospective landlords checking her record made it impossible to find a new place that was suitable for her and her child’s needs, and other people in similar situations at the complex have told her they’d experienced similar issues.

“I’m just really afraid now that I’ve seen what they can do to me,” Silvia said. She needs a place that’s comfortable for her teenage daughter when she spends the weekend, but feels she’s been robbed of any choice in the matter.

“I know they have done this to other people–they’ve trashed their housing record.”

Eviction filings rise in Dane County

The U.S. Supreme Court ended the Biden Administration’s moratorium on evictions two months ago, saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority in banning evictions during a public health crisis. Since that decision on August 26, there’s been at least a 64% increase in eviction filings from August to both September and October in Dane County, according to court records.

An eviction filing doesn’t necessarily mean someone has been evicted; a judge must side with the landlord in a judgment for eviction before a tenant can be forced to leave. According to online court records, Silvia’s property management at New Fountains Apartment Homes in Fitchburg has filed for at least 26 evictions during the pandemic (three since the moratorium ended). Only six of them resulted in successful convictions, with seven cases (including Silvia’s) dismissed and eleven others leading to “stipulated” dismissals.

New Fountains’ parent company, the Colorado-based Monarch Investment and Management Group, owns two other apartment complexes in Dane County–Fordem Towers and Rivers Edge–as well as two apartment complexes in the Milwaukee area. Public records appear to indicate that neither of the other Dane County properties have sought to evict anyone during the pandemic.

So far in October, landlords have filed for 141 evictions in Dane County circuit court–most of them are still open. Only one of the remaining closed cases resulted in a judgment for eviction. The vast majority are ending in what’s called a “stipulated dismissal”, where the tenant and landlord agree to certain conditions for the tenant, according to the Tenant Resource Center. Violation of those conditions could lead to an eviction down the road.

September also saw 141 eviction filings, representing a marked increase from July and August–the last full months before the evictions moratorium lifted, where landlords filed for 81 and 86 evictions, respectively.

Most of that increase is happening in the county outside the city of Madison, Professor Lopez says–a break from the norm.

“The numbers have flipped. It used to be that around two-thirds of the cases were from the city of Madison and one-third from outside the city,” Lopez said. “That is now roughly–roughly–70%  outside the city.”

The rise has meant Dane County judges have added an extra day for eviction cases to the normal weekly calendar, Lopez said. Part of the increase she attributes to a brief disruption in federal rental assistance funds, after Urban Triage took over as distributor for federal rental assistance funds through the county. On October 1, Dane CORE 2.0 launched in the county, which transferred fund administration from the Tenant Resource Center to Urban Triage for people outside the city.

“Dane Core 2.0 partners have been and continue to reach out to those applicants to assist them with their applications in the new system, in addition to receiving and processing new applications,” said Casey Becker, division administrator for Dane County’s Housing Access and Affordability Division.

A lot of it is just the nature of the Dane County rental market, where landlords know they have the upper hand in a rapidly-expanding county.

“Even though there are millions of rental assistance dollars available, some landlords know they can re-rent and raise the price, or re-rent and renovate and raise the price. So there’s a lot of gentrification happening as a result of this rental market being extraordinarily hot,” Lopez said. “Because of that, renters are losing their homes even when they can actually still pay.”

According to a spokesperson for the Dane County executive’s office, more than $13 million was paid out as of September 23 in federal emergency rental assistance in Dane County this year. To date, staff estimate that number has now surpassed $13.5 million.

In balance of power between tenant and landlord, tenant often at disadvantage

From start to finish, an eviction can happen much faster than the general public might realize, a third-year law student who participates in UW’s Eviction Defense Clinic said. At times, all it takes is two weeks from the initial notice to a court’s decision to side with the landlord in an eviction proceeding.

“What I would want the public to know is how high the stakes are for the people we’re representing,” UW law student Caitlin Willenbrink said. “I know that landlords, people who own housing, have a lot of financial investment on the line. At the same time, our clients–they have the roof over their heads on the line.”

More and more frequently, Prof. Lopez says she’s watching Dane County landlords cut corners on eviction procedures like not serving notices properly or tenants not knowing about court dates. A letter asking a tenant to move out doesn’t qualify as an eviction in and of itself; a tenant has a right to a trial, and only a judge can order an eviction after a landlord files in small claims court. But tenants who don’t know about their rights–many of those who don’t get legal help–are left at a disadvantage.

“There are just not a lot of options when you don’t know about and can’t access your legal rights,” Prof. Lopez said. “It’s a very complex system even though it’s small claims and meant to be accessible to the public…A lawyer makes a world of difference.”

They’ll continue to represent Silvia, Prof. Lopez said, as her housing struggles continue. They’ve filed a motion to redact the dismissed eviction proceeding, to help her housing record down the road. If she’s taken to court again, they’ll step in to represent her.

Meanwhile, Silvia wants a choice in housing, a place where her teenage daughter–who spends weekends with her–can feel safe and comfortable as well.

“It seems like they’re not cognizant of how that affects people, how that creates serious issues for people,” Silvia said, reflecting on the bad references she says her landlord continues to leave with prospective apartments. For late pandemic payments, it doesn’t seem like a fair equation–especially when they’re still asking her to move.

“It creates suffering, needless suffering.”

*Quotes attributed to Silvia Rodriguez are as interpreted by Fred Svensson with the Interpreters’ Cooperative of Madison. Svensson has spent 20 years in Madison providing Spanish language services as a court and freelance interpreter.

Photojournalist Brian Mesmer contributed to this report.