According to the city of Madison, more than half of us in the capital rent our housing. And sometimes we run into problems.
That’s when we turn to the Tenant Resource Center, a local nonprofit that offers a wealth of information, programs and services to both renters and landlords.
These days, more than ever, the center is finding that people just don’t know what’s allowed or required when it comes to housing regulations. The confusion comes from changes to state statutes in recent years.
“I think landlords aren’t educated about the new laws, [just] as much as tenants aren’t educated about the new laws,” says Brenda Konkel, the center’s longtime executive director. “So the most important thing if people have a problem — landlord or tenant, really — is to call us and find out what the new laws are.”
And she means it when she says that the center is meant to be as much a resource for landlords as well as their lease-holders.
“It’s funny, because in Madison everyone thinks we’re more tenant-oriented, but in the rest of the state we teach sometimes hundreds of owners a year tenant-landlord law.”
The roots of the Tenant Resource Center go back to 1969. “There was a Madison tenant union and a student tenant union,” says Konkel, a former Dist. 2 alder. “They did strikes and tenant organizing and things like that. Their missions grew and changed, and they began to do different things.”
In 1980 the two unions merged to become the Tenant Resource Center, with an emphasis on “resource.” It operates in three locations: the Dane County Job Center, 1819 Aberg Ave., on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at 333 East Campus Mall, and at its headquarters, 1202 Williamson St.
And then there’s its website, which offers information on rights and laws; housing availability, including subsidized housing; and dozens of digital brochures.
“These days we do a whole bunch of programs,” says Konkel. “Probably the primary thing we do is a whole lot of housing counseling. We answer questions for tenants or landlords.” Landlords account for about 10% of the center’s counseling annually. “We answer questions about anything they have a question about,” Konkel continues. “Evictions, security deposits, breaking a lease, repairs. Those are our top issues. But then we answer everything else, too, such as questions about bedbugs or whatever kinds of problems a person might have.”
The group’s Housing Help Desk, sited at the job center on Aberg, helps people find housing or figure out what kind of programs they might be eligible for. “We have been spending more and more time on helping people find housing, because there’s such a low vacancy rate here in Madison,” says Konkel.
On Tuesdays the center offers mediation at small claims court, to help tenants and landlords either work out payment plans or determine workable move-out dates.
And the center teaches seminars all over the state. “Our theory is if you teach a landlord how to do things right, we’ll have fewer tenants complaining,” says Konkel, laughing. “That’s been our philosophy for a long time. That’s why we do the mediations, too, so that we try and work out something that’s a mutual agreement between the two parties instead of having animosity and conflict.”
There have been many changes to state rental law the last few years, some of which preempt city law. Not only did that make it harder for tenants trying to find housing, it made it easier for them to be evicted, says Konkel. Landlords also are not required to return as much of a security deposit.
This has contributed to a climate where “landlords tend to think they can do anything,” says Konkel.
The center outlines these changes on its website.
But, Konkel advises, “tenants should know they still have protections in lots of different areas. They’re just not as strong as they used to be.”
The center helps around 15,000 people a year. It has a toll-free number for those living outside of Dane County, and receives calls from all over the state.
If you encounter a problem, visit its extensive website first; but anyone with a housing question may walk in, email or leave a phone message with the center’s call-back service. (The volume of calls makes this system easiest for both clients and staff.)
The Tenant Resource Center is funded by the city of Madison and Dane County. Contributions are also accepted. Volunteers are welcome. For more information visit tenantresourcecenter.org or call 608-257-0006 within Dane County.