By Dayna Long
Maggie Cousin and her roommates have been living in the same seven-bedroom rental house in Madison for two years now. It’s an older house and it’s not in the best shape, but there’s room for everyone, and the basement offers an amenity for this group of housemates—a place to play music. Cousin is a musician, as well as a student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their housemates are also musicians. Though the house is not ideal, the setup works well for the group for now. That’s why they decided to sign on for a third year when it came time to renew their lease in the fall of 2020. They were happy to lock in housing at the same rate, $3,645 a month, for the 2021-2022 rental year.
But by the end of January 2021, what seemed like a straightforward arrangement between a landlord and repeat tenants was turning into a struggle. Cousin’s landlord informed her and her roommates that the lease they had signed was turned in past the deadline and was therefore invalid. According to emails shared with Red Madison, under the terms of the new lease, the rent would be $4,175 a month, an increase of $530, or $6,360 more over the course of the whole year. Nothing about the house had changed. There were no improvements to the property that could explain the sudden increase in rent. In fact, Cousin explains, it was sometimes a struggle to get a response to basic maintenance requests.
The new, higher rent was a bad surprise. It was enough of a hike that the housemates weren’t sure if they could make it work.
“At the time, it might have even meant that we couldn’t all live together anymore because there are not that many seven-bedroom houses on the market still in January.” Cousin says. “So we were looking at splitting up. I was talking to other people, like ‘What’s your living situation like? I don’t know how I’m going to figure this out.’ It just wouldn’t have worked.”
But Cousin was also skeptical of the sudden change and talked with friends and contacts on social media about what seemed like a sketchy development. Enough people agreed that the rent hike seemed questionable that Cousin felt encouraged to reach out to the Tenant Resource Center (TRC) for more formal advice. Their consultation with the TRC confirmed that the landlord’s actions were potentially illegal. Per Wisconsin statute ATCP 134.02, a rental agreement can be oral or written—and it can’t be violated by either party. Though staff at the TRC are not attorneys and cannot provide legal advice, Cousin felt confident, based on the information the TRC provided, that they had already entered into a rental agreement with their landlord and that the new lease with its new, increased rent was a violation of that initial agreement. Not only had they signed the original lease, but they had entered into an oral agreement even before that.
Cousin and her roommates decided to push back on the unexpected rent hike. They started by sending their landlord an email that included some of the legal information they received from the TRC, and explaining that they would not agree to the new, higher rent.
“We just said that we knew what he was doing was illegal and that the reason it was illegal is that we had already signed the other lease. So that agreement was already in place and he is responsible for honoring it.” Cousin explains.
But Cousin also says that they and their housemates knew that having the law on their side wouldn’t be enough by itself to win. Cousin credits this recognition to her involvement in Socialist Alternative and her Marxist understanding of capitalism and its power dynamics. The relationship between landlords and tenants is wildly unequal. Tenants usually have far fewer resources at their disposal to enforce the law from their end.
“[Our landlord] doesn’t care if he’s right in the law because he’s going to use whatever power he has, his money, his lawyer, his economic situation, the fact that he owns the property—he’ll use all that to his advantage,” Cousin explains. “So we have to use whatever power we have to our advantage, too. We can’t just wait around for the law to come and help us.”
In fact, their landlord continued to insist on the new lease and the higher rent even after receiving the email from Cousin and their housemates. He voided the original lease. He told them that he was talking with his lawyer about the situation, a common refrain from landlords who are confident that their tenants do not have lawyers and will be too intimidated by the mention of the landlord’s lawyer to pursue their rights any further. He suggested that there were prospective tenants who were ready to rent the house at the new, increased rent (a dubious claim: when a friend of the housemates’ called the landlord to inquire about the property, they were told that it was still available). Their landlord also contacted certain housemates individually in what appeared to be an attempt to weaken group resolve.
“I think he was maybe hoping that we weren’t coordinating as much as we were. I think if we weren’t really organized amongst ourselves, he could have been able to have this different set of negotiating going on,” Cousin says.
But the housemates held firm, knowing that their unity was an important strength in the fight. Cousin viewed their landlords’ scrambling as a sign that he knew he was in the wrong. And finally, when the landlord texted Cousin to attempt to negotiate a third agreement with the rent landing in between the original rent and the new, more expensive rent, the housemates saw victory on the horizon.
“I sent that—a screenshot of that—to everyone. And I said, ‘I think if he’s negotiating, it means that he’s wrong and we shouldn’t take him up on it,’ and people agreed. Then the next day he sent out a new lease that was a copy of the original price.” Cousin says.
Cousin’s experience is commonplace and falls in among the milder, garden-variety landlord-tenant disputes in the city. In February, Cailyn Schilz wrote about property managers profiting off of the unsafe, poorly maintained housing they rent to students. Madison Tenant Power’s Eviction Court live tweeting further illuminates the unfair circumstances and dire straits that lead some tenants to lose their housing altogether.
Cousin’s story reveals a lot about the tenant-landlord relationship and the entitlement of the landlord class. Cousin’s landlord, who owns multiple properties in Madison, stood to rake in over $6,000 more over the course of a year from Cousin and her housemates while providing absolutely no increased value to the tenants. There were no improvements made to the house that he owns and no new amenities added. As far as the tenants are concerned, nothing about their rental experience was going to change at all.
Often landlords will cite rising property taxes as a reason for raising rents. But with property taxes tied to the value of a property, it is unclear why tenants should cover that cost. A tenant receives no benefit from the value of a property they do not own and can never profit from. Of course, in Wisconsin landlords are free to raise the rents as they please without any justification at all. But in this particular case, the landlord stated that they were entitled to this increase in profits simply because a lease was returned late.
Furthermore, Cousin’s story illustrates the connection between affordable housing and the vitality of our city’s creative life. While landlords themselves have nothing to offer except to rent their surplus housing supply at exploitative rates, artists, actors, and musicians like Cousin do increase the quality of life in a city like Madison. But when landlords raise rents arbitrarily, it can jeopardize housing and rehearsal space, and disrupt the creative, collaborative relationships that can form between housemates.
Cousin’s story also teaches us that even though landlords have an enormous advantage over tenants (especially in Wisconsin, where landlords in the Republican-controlled state legislature have codified an even greater imbalance of power into law), it is not true that they will always win. If tenants fight back, it is possible to beat the landlord.
“Landlords have a lot of power over us, undeserved power. But they also really rely on making you think that they have more power over you than they do,” Cousin explains. “A big part of the way that they operate is they’ll just openly do illegal stuff and know that nine times out of ten, they can get away with that. So if you’re in any kind of situation like that, just be ready to take ownership of the power that you do have.”
If you have a landlord story you would like to share with Red Madison, please send us an email at email@example.com. We are especially eager to hear from tenants who have won disputes with their landlord or rental company in the hopes that these stories will encourage others and break through some of the isolation and atomization that makes renters vulnerable.