For a condensed version of the information below, click here for a printable pdf.
Unless something else is written in your lease, one of three new laws might change your rights.
Purple text applies to leases and events as of 12/21/11 (2011 Wis. Act 108)
Orange text applies to leases and events as of 3/31/12 (2011 Wis. Act 143)
Green text applies to leases and events as of 3/1/14 (2013 Wis. Act 76)
Blue text applies to leases and events as of 11/1/15 (CR 14-038)
Maroon text applies to leases and events as of 3/2/16 (2015 Wis. Act. 176)
More information on law changes is available here. Have your lease available when calling the Tenant Resource Center so we can help you know what your rights and remedies are, including whether you can double your costs when you sue a landlord.
It is the declared policy of this state that all persons shall have an equal opportunity for housing regardless of sex, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, lawful source of income, age or ancestry ... [as] an exercise of the police powers of the state for the protection of the welfare, health, peace, dignity and human rights of the people of this state.
-- Excerpt of Wis. Stat. 106.50(1) Wisconsin's Open Housing Law
Have you been a victim of housing discrimination?
Any form of housing discrimination against members of protected groups is illegal. Prohibited acts include refusing to rent, evicting, not renewing, denying an equal level of services, and other tenant harassment. But, while housing discrimination is a violation of federal, state, and/or local laws, it still occurs. To determine if you have been a victim of housing discrimination, ask yourself the following three questions:
1. Where you treated differently from other tenants or applicants?
The following landlord practices are prohibited when targeted against a member of a protected class under Wis. Stat. 106.50(2):
- Falsely represent that housing is unavailable
- Refusal to rent or to let people apply
- Refusal to permit inspection, or having different prices, terms, or conditions
- Advertise a preference or limitation (for example: "Great for a couple/young professional/Christian family")
- Refuse to renew a lease, causing eviction, or harass a tenant
- Provide different privileges, services, or facilities
- Coerce, intimidate, or threaten a person because they tried to use their fair housing rights, or because they encouraged others to do so (see our Landlord Retaliation page)
- Otherwise making housing unavailable or denying it exists
There is no law against a landlord being rude. If a landlord makes everyone's repairs slowly or not at all, or refuses all applicants who have bad credit, then it is not discrimination. If your landlord singles you out for poor treatment, you still must show that the landlord treated you differently because of your status as a member of one or more of the following protected classes.
2. Do you belong to a class that has protections under law?
Federal protected classes include:
- National Origin
- Mental or Physical Disability
- Family Status (including pregnancy)
- Age (18 and over)
Wisconsin includes federally protected classes, plus the following:
- Sexual Orientation
- Marital Status
- Lawful Source of Income
- Victims of Domestic Abuse or Other Crimes
Dane County includes all federal and state protections, plus the following:
- Physical Condition, Mental Illness, and Handicap
- Type of Military Discharge
- Physical Appearance
- Gender Identity (includes transgender)
- Domestic Partnership Status
- Political Beliefs
- Student Status
- Receipt of Rental Assistance (such as Section 8)
Madison includes all extra classes in Dane County plus:
- Citizenship Status (City of Madison only)
- Genetic Identity (City of Madison only)
- the fact that a person declines to disclose their social security number
Examples of people who are not protected under City of Madison, Dane County, state or federal law include, but are not limited to: smokers, vegetarians, and people with pets that are not service or companion animals. Other local cities and counties might have additional protected classes or varying specifics, so check your local fair housing ordinances.
Former Madison and Dane County protections:
Effective 12/21/11, the following City of Madison and Dane County protected classes have been removed by the Wisconsin State Legislature:
- Arrest or Conviction Record (limited protections) Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)1.e., Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)2, 2011 Wis. Act 108 NOTE: If the landlord checks some people, they should check everyone for conviction records.
- Disclosure of Social Security Number Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)1.f., 2011 Wis. Act 108, Sec. 1 NOTE: Citizenship status is still protected.
- Minimum Income Requirements (limited protections, City of Madison only, See Minimum Income Requirements) Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)1.a., 2011 Wis. Act 108, Sec. 1
Dane County forbids housing discrimination based on conviction records unless it presents a justifiable fear for safety of residents or employees. DCO 31.11(1)(e) The City of Madison further includes arrest record and adds that discrimination is illegal if more than two years have passed since the tenant was placed on probation, paroled, released from incarceration, or paid a fine, and that the landlord must use a uniform written process for checking arrest and conviction records. MGO 39.03(4)(d)(4) Laws are different for sexual offenders. Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)1.e., Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)2, 2011 Wis. Act 108, Eff. 12/21/11
In Dane County and the City of Madison, a landlord may not deny housing or services due to the fact that the applicant has declined to disclose their Social Security Number when such disclosure is not compelled by state or federal law. DCO 31.15, MGO 39.03(4), Wis. Stat. 66.0101(2)(a)1.f., 2011 Wis. Act 108, Sec. 1, Eff. 12/21/11
3. Were you treated differently because of that protected class?
For example, if a landlord refused to rent to you because you are female, an immigrant, Jewish, gay, African-American, only 22 years old, divorced, have children, etc., that might be illegal discrimination.
Fair housing laws do not require landlords to rent to people in protected classes if there is a legitimate reason to deny their application. Legitimate reasons include poor references or poor credit reports, a record of eviction, an incomplete application, or false information on an application. If a landlord were to decide to do a credit check (or other forms of applicant screening) only because of someone's membership in a protected class, though, that could be considered discrimination.
Applications have one legitimate purpose: to give the landlord information about whether the applicant will be a good tenant (whether they will take good care of the apartment, pay the rent and not disturb other tenants, etc.). If any question concerns age (other than being over 18), sex, marital status, etc., or does not seem to serve a legitimate purpose, tenants may want to ask why the landlord needs the information. Landlords are allowed to ask:
- Names of everyone applying to live in the unit
- Places the tenant lived in the past few years
- Where tenants work and/or amount of income (in order to verify ability to pay)
- Financial information about debt
- Whether everyone is 18 or older
A landlord may verify this information by calling past landlords and employers or by checking your credit report. If the landlord request permission to do a credit check, they may get your report from a credit bureau.
For more information about who to call with issues, see: What's the difference between fair housing and tenant-landlord laws?
For more information about housing discrimination or to file a complaint, call the following agencies:
City of Madison Equal Opportunities Commission
Outside of the City of Madison, check with your city or county for a similar Equal Opportunities Commission in your area.
Fair Housing Centers
Three offices in Madison, Milwaukee, and Appleton provide services throughout Wisconsin.
Toll-free intake line: (877) 647-3247
Dane County Corporation Counsel
Wisconsin Equal Rights Division
Wisconsin Consumer Protection
Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
Chicago: (800) 765-9372
Denied Applicant's Right to Know
There is currently no legal requirement that landlords accept certain tenants over others. The only cases in which tenants are protected is if they can prove they were the victim of discrimination or retaliation for asserting their rights. Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1.a., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2 & 4
All landlords in Dane County, including the City of Madison, must include the following language in written rental applications: "Do you wish to receive a written explanation of a denial of tenancy? Yes___ / No___." If an application is denied and the applicant checked "yes," the landlord must provide a written explanation within 10 business days. The rejected applicant may also make a separate written request for an explanation, which must be received by the landlord within 10 days of the denial. DCO 31.24, Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1.a., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2 & 4Eff. 3/1/14.
In addition, MGO 32.08(5) requires that all landlords provide a written reason for denial, under all circumstances, within three days of denying an application. The only situation in which a City of Madison landlord would not have to provide a written explanation would be if the applicant had checked "no" on the rental application. (If a landlord fails to make a decision within 21 days of receipt of an application, the applicant is considered denied.)
On July 17, 2013, the Dane County Board of Supervisors amended an important ordinance protecting residential tenants in the lease renewal and application process. As of 7/31/13, landlords are now required to:
- Upon request, tell all applicants the reason for their rejection and describe the landlord's selection criteria and the source of information being used to make the decision, even if the applicant did not request this on their initial application.
Non-Renewal of Tenant's Lease
There is currently no legal requirement that landlords renew an existing tenant's lease. The only cases in which tenants are protected is if they can prove they were the victim of discrimination or retaliation for asserting their rights. Wis. Stat. 66.0104(2)(d)1.a., 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 2 & 4
The Dane County ordinance above also protects residential tenants in the lease renewal and application process. As of 7/31/13, landlords are now required to:
- Tell tenants in writing why their lease is not being renewed, the sources of information being used to make the decision, and give up to 60 days notice (depending on their lease).
How can landlords avoid discriminatory treatment?
Landlords should create a set of non-discriminatory procedures for everyone and follow them consistently regardless of what class the tenant belongs to. It's the best way to protect landlords and their tenants.
- Create procedures for showing rental units and follow them consistently. Have a checklist of items to go over with each caller and person who is shown a rental unit. Use the same checklist with everyone.
- Set up application criteria that will ensure you accept good tenants. Check prior landlord, employment, and personal references, and eviction records. Do credit checks. Review the application thoroughly for missing and inaccurate information. Follow this criteria for all applicants every time and do not allow biases or any unrelated information to affect your decision. If you decide to have alternative criteria, that is okay. If someone has a lessor credit score, but you would rent to them if they had a co-signer, just make sure everyone with that lower credit score gets the same opportunity.
- Advertise the features of the apartment, not who you want to rent it to. Avoid phrases like: "perfect for ..." Instead, describe the apartment itself and let prospective tenants decide if they are interested.
- Treat all tenant complaints and requests in a consistent manner. Set guidelines for handling repairs and tenant complaints.
Follow them consistently. If you have further questions, call the Tenant Resource Center or one of the listed agencies. For legal advice, consult a housing attorney.