During this season of celebration, where people gather with family to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's, among other, more personal celebrations, it can stand in stark contrast to the stories of difficulty that flood us here at the TRC. Of course, this is true year round, but always seems especially difficult as the days are short, the temperatures drop, and our clients come in wondering how to stave off eviction. Meanwhile, folks outside cheerfully rush past our glass windows, laughing with their bundles of presents.
We have a print in our office, by the talented Amos Kennedy, which says, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. - Ian MacLaren." We remember it daily, as we talk to our clients. I think one of the main benefits of this job, is that we see every story, told again and again, from many angles, each time new.
Did you know that tenants can be evicted even during the winter months? Even if they have disabilities or children? It's true. No law protects tenants from that, though there is a legal process to dictate the terms. Also, laws don't protect landlords from foreclosure, though there is a process for that, too.
Today, I'm urging compassion. And I'm telling some stories.
I tell a story in the seminars, and it goes like this: I once got a call from a young lady, and she said, "well, I signed a lease for a place I can't afford, but it's okay because they can't evict me during the winter anyway." And it's kind of a joke for me, standing up there, in a room full of mostly-pretty-well-informed people, saying that she's basing the entire stability of her housing on a law that doesn't exist. In fact, the opposite law exists - it's against the law, in Wisconsin, for there to be a moratorium on evictions, for there to be any period of the year which the court doesn't allow evictions to take place.
And so, I told her this, and she asked if it was different if she had kids? And different if she had a disability? And the answer was no. But to be honest, it wasn't all that funny, in that moment, telling this misinformed young person that her homelessness hinged almost entirely on her lack of knowledge, on her incorrect presumptions. I imagine that it wasn't necessarily because of a desire for ignorance, that she passed up knowledge of these laws. I imagine that no one ever bothered to tell her that she should know what her rights are, that she should be especially careful as a tenant, and as a parent. That there are things you should know. And I bet that she suffered from this lack of knowledge; I bet she lost her housing. I bet she was misinformed in other facets of her life, as well. I bet things were hard.
A while back, when I took the calls for our Mediation program, I took a call from a single dad, and he was really scared about being evicted. He told me a sad but believable tale of the injustices that the landlord had done (retaliation! discrimination! needed repairs!). I told him about the process at eviction court, and gave him information about how to fight the eviction, if he chose to.
Each week, I would go by the courthouse, to check up on the mediators and take notes for the evictions coming down the line next week. When I asked the mediator how that case had gone, she said that the tenant had put his head down on the table and sobbed. And he said that he'd been lying all along. He didn't have the money for the rent, so he made up stories about how he'd be able to pay the landlord. He made up stories to me, about why he could fight the eviction. The truth was, he'd been laid off due to injury. His unemployment had ended. W2 (typically less than $700 per month per family) didn't cover the rent. He had been waiting on approval from Social Security to receive a disability income. He finally had some ways to pay back the rent, barely, slowly, but needed the landlord's willingness to go out on a limb. To go out on a limb where the landlord had been burned before.
It warmed my heart to know that the landlord did. The landlord made a payment plan with the tenant, one that the tenant could do, barely, and one that the landlord could hold him to. The landlord only owned a couple rental units, and relied on the income. If the rent was late, he had a hard time making his mortgage payment. But he gave it another try. The landlord was trying to make ends meet for his family, but he wasn't trying to make anyone homeless. I appreciated, deeply, his willingness to give it one more try.
When people come in here, we don't really encourage them to go past their limits. We try and stick to what the law says, what they must do, what they might try. If a landlord doesn't want to make one last payment plan, we don't tell them that they have to (they don't). But we do encourage people to think a little deeper about the stories that they are hearing, and we try to find a common ground, together. We teach people how to negotiate. We talk to folks about how to ask nicely.
This whole housing thing, there's a humanity in there. We can see it. We hope you can, too.