Domestic Abuse: For Tenants

Recently, a client came in who had moved to Madison to escape an abuser, only to find out that her name was on an eviction case (with the abuser, no less) back in the apartment she had left behind. We worked out a plan and I'm happy to say I think she got what she needed. Here at the TRC, we see so many people having dealt with so many kinds of violence, and it's one of the Really Hard Things. Abuse is one of the main causes of homelessness among women and children, so it's something a lot of our clients have dealt with in the past or are currently dealing with.

As the person who gets the privilege of writing many of these blog posts for the TRC, it is one of my great joys to give voice to the voiceless, to highlight a perspective that maybe some of you out there, either: 1. Feel, and find it difficult to articulate, or 2. Haven't thought of. Being abused is the ultimate experience of voicelessness, of unempowerment, and there are Wisconsin laws that help protect survivors of that abuse. That's what I'm writing about today, the laws that might be able to give those survivors out there enough leverage to get themselves safe.

As we see it here at the TRC, the steps for a survivor of abuse might look something like this:

Step A. Get help: look for a local program that supports survivors of abuse. Help is confidential and you don't even have to give your name. These folks know the kinds of things that survivors go through. They are good listeners, and can help you plan what to do to get yourself as safe as possible (follow this link or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.)

Step B. Get safe: You need to do what's right for you to get safe. This isn't about any law; it isn't about your lease – it's about a gut instinct that tells you what is right for you. Listening to that gut instinct is one of the most important things you can do, because leaving abuse is one of the most dangerous times in the cycle of abuse. You know best what the other person is capable of, so make decisions that are right for you about when and how to get out. If calling the police is the right choice for you, you should know that Wisconsin laws ATCP 134.08(1) and Wis. Stat. 704.44(1m) protect your right to call the police for your safety – even if you invited the person in. 

Step C. Worry about the other stuff later: Wisconsin law protects survivors for some of the common housing problems that go with abuse. That's where we come in. Read more below or contact us with questions. 


The Things That Wisconsin Tenant-Landlord Law Does to Protect Survivors of Abuse:

Wis. Stat. 704.16 says that if you can show that you are a survivor of abuse/sexual assault/stalking for you or a minor child, then you get special protections. The (very short) version is that IF a tenant can prove in certain ways that they are experiencing abuse, then that tenant can get out of a lease or have the abuser evicted. 

There are only 3 ways that you can qualify for these protections, though, and they are:

  • If you have an injunction for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking for you or a minor child, then you qualify for the special protections. This must be a full restraining order, that was ordered by a judge, and not a "Temporary Protective Order" or a "Temporary Restraining Order," which is given to a person who may qualify for a full restraining order, in order to get them safely to the hearing where a judge will decide whether or not to grant the injunction. When the judge grants the full restraining order/injunction, then the court will give you the paperwork showing the exact terms of the restraining order.
  • If the District Attorney for your county has started to try and hold the perpetrator criminally responsible for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking of you or a minor child, then you qualify for the special protections. This usually happens when the police arrested the perpetrator for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking, and you've been contacted by the Victim Witness Unit, affiliated with the District Attorney's office. You can contact your Victim Witness Unit for paperwork showing why the perpetrator was arrested.
  • If there is a condition of release in the bail hearing where the perpetrator is ordered not to contact you or a minor child, then you qualify for special protections. This will be in a situation where the perpetrator has been arrested for domestic abuse/sexual assault/stalking for you or a minor child, and they are being released on bail while their trial for these criminal acts is going on. This condition of release is not the same as a 72-hour no-contact order, which does not qualify you for the special protections. You can contact your Victim Witness Unit for help getting a copy of this condition of release.

The special protections that you get are:

  • You (the survivor of abuse) may end your lease as if you were a month to month tenant, and you would be released from all responsibilities under the lease after 28 days' notice. This is one of the few situations where one person can get off of a lease, without the consent with the other parties on the lease.
  • The survivor of abuse may ask that the perpetrator be removed from the lease, and no longer have rights to use the rental unit. The offending tenant would then get a 5-day notice with no right to cure. This is one of the few situations where one person can be removed from the lease without their consent, and also one of the few situations where a 5-day notice does not have the right to be cured (there's no way for the offending tenant to make things right and continue to live there).
  • You can request that your locks be changed. Either your landlord must change the locks, or allow you to change the locks, within 48 hours of being notified of your request. It's important to note that the survivor of abuse can be asked to pay for the cost of changing the locks.

How you get your landlord to give you the special protections: The tenant who is the survivor of abuse must write the landlord a letter. That letter needs these important pieces of information:

  • That you or your child "faces an imminent threat of serious physical harm from another person," and
  • That you or your child are a survivor of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking, as proven with a copy of one of the pieces of paper from above (restraining order, criminal charge, condition of release), and 
  • What you are asking for. This could be that you want to be released from the lease, that you want the offending tenant to be released from the lease, or that you want your locks changed.

Once a landlord is given this kind of letter, they are not allowed to say no - they must follow the request you have made. Landlords are also not allowed to penalize you for calling the police for your safety under Wis. Stat. 704.44(1m) and ATCP 134.08(1).

Sometimes, even though you are experiencing abuse, you don't have the proof you need (the restraining order, the criminal charge, the condition of release) to invoke the protections above. You always have the choice to break your lease, though, or take other steps to make yourself safe. Survivors of abuse also have protection from discrimination under Fair Housing Law (it's complicated - call us if you have questions). Remember, we always encourage survivors to get safe first, and then worry about the legal stuff later.


For Landlords: Here's a post just for you! Dealing with domestic abuse from the outside is incredibly challenging, and it can be hard to know what the survivor needs.


For the Friends of the Tenant Who Is Being Abused:

  • Listen: People who are being abused often feel voiceless. Let your loved one talk. Listen deeply. Know that it's not your job to Fix It. Listening can be harder than fixing/rescuing, since your friend is in danger. If you are confused about what your friend needs, ask - "do you need me to listen right now, or do something right now?" Don't ask for details about the abuse/sexual assault/stalking unless they offer it.
  • Call a Domestic Abuse agency in your areaYou can have the number handy, for your friend (maybe they could even call on your phone?). You can also call, to get support as a witness of the abuse, to figure out what options your friend may have, or to learn more about what abuse can look like/what the patterns are.
  • Know the Cycle: Many survivors of abuse will leave their abuser and go back many times, which can be so frustrating to witness, as someone who cares. What's important here is giving your friend the power of making their own choice over their own life (abuse is an extreme experience of not having power over their own life - don't be another person who takes choices away). Make sure that you don't overextend - only go as far as you feel comfortable going, knowing that your friend might go back, but that they also might be in danger.
  • Be a Safe Harbor: Even if you're having trouble participating in the cycles, it's often possible to be a safe, non-judgmental place for your friend to land, maybe just for a night, maybe longer.
  • Encourage solo counseling: Help your friend find a safe place to explore what draws them in, and what pulls them out. (It doesn't have to be you!) Your local domestic abuse agency may have support groups, which can help, too.
  • Books that may be helpful for your friend: Sometimes, an easy step is to give your friend a book (or read it yourself). Books can help them see the patterns, and get information as they are ready to digest it. Here's a list of possible reading material.


* 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