Domestic Abuse: For Landlords

We get a lot of opportunity to talk to landlords here at the TRC because of a couple reasons: 1. We serve them (did you know that landlords can come to us with their questions, too? It's true. And many do), and 2. We give seminars around the state twice per year (they're fun, you should come).

When landlords have questions for us about abuse in their rental, usually, they are frustrated. And it's not because the landlords are bad people - it's because they feel like they can't do anything about something awful that is happening inside walls they own. Walls that they own that are getting damaged because of the awful thing that is happening. Landlords have so many reasons to want abuse to stop, but that power doesn't sit with them - it sits with the tenants. And that's hard to live with.  Today, I'm talking about what a landlord can, can't, and must do in these situations where they know abuse is occurring for their tenants.

(Are you a tenant experiencing abuse? I wrote something for you last week).

The things you Must Do: Wis. Stat. 704.16 says that you, as the landlord, must provide certain protections to tenants who are being abused (allow them to cancel their own lease, ask that you evict the abuser, or change the locks), if they have certain kinds of proof. Here's how it works:

  • The tenant shows you some kind of proof. It needs to be one of these to invoke these special protections:
    1. A domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking restraining order for the tenant or their child,
    2. Proof of a criminal charge against the abuser for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking for the tenant or their child, or
    3. A condition of release where abuser is ordered not to contact the tenant or their child because of domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking. (These are explained in more detail in the law, and in my last post.)
  • The tenant asks you for one of these three special protections:  
    1. The tenant who is the survivor of abuse can ask that the abusive tenant be removed (from a shared lease, an apartment complex, a mobile home park), and then you would need to give the abusive tenant a 5-day notice with no right to cure. This is one of the few times that you do not need to give any right to cure the problem and stay. You must issue the eviction notice and carry it out, if the survivor requests in this way.
    2. The tenant who is the survivor of abuse can ask to be removed from a lease if staying would put them in danger. That tenant would need to give notice as if they were a month-to-month tenant, even if they aren't (even if their lease is longer). This is one of the few situations where someone can be taken off the lease without the permission of anyone else on the lease. You must allow the survivor to cancel their part in the lease, if the survivor requests in this way.
    3. The tenant who is the survivor of abuse can ask that their locks are changed. That can be something they do themselves (and then give you the key) or ask that you do within 48 hours. The tenant can be charged for this cost. You must allow the locks to be changed, if the survivor requests in this way.
  • All of this should be in a letter: The letter should say that they are in danger, what proof they have (above), and what protections they are hoping for (above).

The things you Can't Do: 

  • You can't say no: If a tenant is being abused, and follows the procedure above, from Wis. Stat. 704.16, then you need to do what they ask (allow them to end their own lease, evict the abuser, or change the locks). Because the law is so specific, if the survivor matches this criteria, you really need to do what they are asking, even if you don't feel enthusiastic.
  • You can't take action against a tenant for calling law enforcement for their safety: Under Wis. Stat. 704.44 and ATCP 134.08(1), landlords can't non-renew or evict a tenant for calling for 911 for their safety. And if, as landlords, you have anything in your lease about too many police calls, you also need to include some very specific wording in your lease about domestic abuse protections, available here, otherwise the tenant can simply choose to void the lease.
  • If the tenant breaks the lease, you can't waive your obligation to mitigate: Sometimes, tenants who are being abused won't have the proof they need to end their lease. However, tenants always have the right to break their lease, and landlords must mitigate (more explanation here). 
  • You can't discriminate against someone for having experienced abuse or being the victim of a crime. Survivors of abuse are a protected class in the state of Wisconsin, so you can't deny someone housing, or give them a different level of service, because they were a victim of abuse.

 The things you Can (Might Want to) Do: 

  • Connect the survivor to help: There are agencies all over Wisconsin that help people dealing with abuse (click here). You can offer to let the survivor call the agency from your phone. Other ways they might need help: transportation to court in order to file a restraining order, transportation to a family member's house to protect the children, privacy to make a phone call.
  • Learn about the cycles: a lot of landlords have a really hard time with the cycles of abuse. From your perspective, you work with your tenant to get the abuser off the property, and in a lot of cases, the survivor and abuser get back together again! This is the nature of abuse; it often goes in cycles - many victims of abuse leave the abuser and then go back a number of times before they leave for good. You can also get support from the domestic abuse agencies, who can help you understand what may be going on for the one experiencing the abuse.
  • Evict the abuser: You can choose to evict only the abuser, if the abuser has violated the lease. You don't need the other tenant's support or consent to do so, though it might be wise to feel him/her out. Since most tenants who share a lease are jointly and severally liable (I explained all that over here), you can choose to evict just one person who is violating the lease. (For something like property damage, say.) It's important to be aware that doing something like this doesn't necessarily make the person experiencing abuse any safer, and if you do it without the survivor's consent, they might not back up your story when the court date comes, because it isn't safe for them to do so.
  • File your own restraining order against the abuser: If you've evicted someone and don't want them on the rental property, you can keep them off the property by filing your own restraining order. A restraining order would give you rights to call the police and have them arrested if they showed up on the property. Many times, though not always, you'd have enough to qualify for a restraining order if you've already evicted the abuser for things to do with domestic abuse. Information on how to file restraining orders should be at your courthouse
  • Leave flyers around the apartment complex: This flyer is a great one written by DAIS for folks in Dane County. By leaving it around your apartment complex/building/mobile home park, hopefully neighbors would be more likely to call the police if something awful was happening, promoting greater safety for everyone, as well as greater safety for the survivor of abuse.  

Here's why all of this is so hard:

  • Your property is getting damaged: in cases of physical abuse, there often is a big component of property damage that goes along with the abuse, and it's really the last thing that a landlord needs. You can hold the tenants responsible for the actions of their guests, and hopefully, the survivor will be able to pass those charges along to the abuser once the abuser is held responsible.
  • It can be hard to tell who is the abuser: sometimes, abusers claim to be the victim (it's all part of this cycle of power and control), and so you want to make sure that you're not in a position of deciding who is right. It can have unexpected outcomes.
  • Often, the victim looks like the less appealing tenant: they have less money (because the abuser has been taking it), they often have a lot of police calls on their record, their credit is often dodgy. If you give them a chance to get their lives together (and I hope you do), be specific and clear with the limits of what you're willing to do. Know that you have the right to evict even a survivor of abuse, if they don't follow the terms of the lease.


* Hi! Did you know that we are not attorneys here at the TRC?  And this isn't legal advice, either.  If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list. And if you need help, please talk to a domestic abuse agency in your area