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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 any other tenant harassment. But while housing discrimination is a violation of federal, state and local law, it still occurs. To determine if you may have been a victim of housing discrimination, ask yourself the following three questions:
1. Were you treated differently than other tenants or applicants?
The following are landlord practices that are prohibited when targeted against a member of a protected class:
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 class.
- Refusal to rent or discuss terms of renting
- Refusal to permit inspection
- Denial that housing is available
- Intimidation of someone who has tried to use his or her fair housing rights (including retaliation or threats of retaliation)
- Intimidation of anyone who encouraged a person to use his or her fair housing rights
- Different, more strict lease terms
- Provision of different housing privileges
- Advertisement in a manner that indicates preferences or limitations
- Refusal to renew a lease
- Any other kind of harassment of a tenant.
2. Do you belong to a class that has protections under law?
Federal protected classes include:
Wisconsin includes federally protected classes plus the following:
- national origin
- mental or physical disability
- familial status (including pregnancy).
Madison and Dane County include all federal and state protections plus the following:
- sexual orientation
- marital status
- age (for people over 18; children are protected through family status)
- lawful source of income.
Examples of people who are not protected under City of Madison, Dane County, state or federal law include: smokers, vegetarians, and people with pets that are not service or therapy animals. Local cities and counties might have additional protected classes or varying specifics.
- type of military discharge
- arrest or conviction record (limited protections)
- physical appearance
- political beliefs
- student status
- victims of domestic abuse or other crimes (limited protections)
- refusal to disclose Social Security Number (City of Madison only).
For instance, the City of Madison also makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate solely on a "three times the rent" or minimum income standard. Landlords must disclose such standards in writing and accept applicants if they demonstrate evidence that they have paid an equal or higher proportion of rent successfully in the past (MGO 32.12(6)). See Tenant Resource Center's information on Minimum Income Requirements.
Additionally, Dane County forbids housing discrimination based on conviction record unless it presents a reasonable fear for safety of residents or employees (DCO 31.11(5)). 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, relased from incarceration, or paid a fine, and is illegal if the landlord does not use a uniform process of checking arrest and conviction records (MGO 3.23(4)).
In the City of Madison, a landlord may not deny housing or services due to the fact that the applicant has declined to disclose his or her Social Security Number when such disclosure is not compelled by state or federal law (MGO 3.23(4)(a) and 3.23(5)).
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, a bartender, only 22 years old, divorced, have children, etc., that might be discrimination.
Fair housing laws do not require landlords to rent to people in protected classes if there is a legitimate reason to deny their applications. Legitimate reasons include poor references or credit, a record of eviction, an incomplete application, or false information on an application. Simply put, a landlord may not consider a person's protected class status either in part or in whole when choosing to rent to the person or during the tenancy.
Applications have one legitimate purpose: to give the landlord information about whether the applicant will be a good tenant (whether the tenants will take good care of the apartment, pay the rent and not disturb other tenants). If any question concerns age, sex, marital status 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:
A landlord may verify this information by calling past landlords and employers or by checking your credit report. If the landlord requests permission to do a credit check, he or she may get your report from a credit bureau. What's the difference between fair housing and tenant-landlord laws?
- names of everyone applying to live in the unit
- places the tenant has lived the past few years
- where tenants work and amount of income (in order to verify ability to pay)
- financial information about debt
- whether everyone is 18 or older.
For more information about housing discrimination or to file a complaint, call the following agencies:
City of Madison Equal Opportunities Commission
Outside the City of Madison, check your phone book for a similar Equal Opportunities Commission in your area.
Fair Housing Centers
Three agencies in Madison, Milwaukee and Appleton together 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
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 the 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).
In addition, Madison General Ordinance 32.08(5) requires all landlords to provide written reason for denial, under all circumstances, within three days of a denial of 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 application is considered denied.)
How can landlords avoid discriminatory treatment?
Landlords should create a set of non-discriminatory procedures and follow them consistently regardless of what class the tenant belongs to. The fair housing laws impose a small burden on landlords, but have a huge impact on 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.
Set up application criteria that will ensure that 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 and do not allow biases or any unrelated information to affect your decision.
Advertise the features of the apartment, not to whom you want to rent the apartment.
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 any further questions, call Tenant Resource Center or one of the listed agencies. For legal advice, consult a housing attorney.