So, there's been a lot of water around Wisconsin lately. And, as they say, when it rains, it floods. (Or something like that). Flooding is technically a repair issue, so for more information on the overarching laws about repairs, see our repairs page for Wisconsin, or for Madison & Fitchburg.
We've been flooded with calls about this issue (pun totally intended), and we have answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.
But before we dive in, the honest answer to many of these questions is: it's hard. But it's a lot easier if you have renter's insurance. The right kind of insurance will pay to replace a tenant's belongings, and will put a tenant up in a hotel if repairs need to be made. Especially this time of year, getting good renter's insurance is one of the best lottery tickets a tenant can buy. More about renter's insurance is here.
There's water in my house. Does my landlord have to pay for a place for me to sleep tonight?
If only it were that simple. Many landlords do. There isn't a lot of guidance in the law about how to handle these situations. In most of these scenarios, the tenant has paid rent, the flooding made it impossible for the tenant to live in their home, and the landlord can't make repairs right away. In those cases, this is what we see:
- A tenant can seek rent money to be returned to them for the rest of the month that they are unable to live in the unit. (For example, if rent had been paid, and the house flooded on the 3rd of July, then the tenant could seek back rent for the 4th-31st of July, or, 90% of July's rent.) The tenant could ask to be reimbursed for a proportional amount of rent for the time that they'd be unable to live in the unit.
- A landlord offers to pay for a hotel for the rest of the month. Alternatively, tenants can get a hotel on their own, and sue the landlord, which is not a guaranteed win. It usually works best when a tenant has written proof that they asked for their rent back or a hotel, and the landlord didn't do either.
- Usually, if a landlord pays back the proportional amount of rent, then a landlord isn't so much obligated to get a hotel room for a tenant. And if a landlord gets a hotel room for a tenant, they aren't so much obligated to give back the rent. It's usually one or the other, though the law isn't very specific about this.
- Alternatively, your renter's insurance pays for you to stay in a hotel.
What the law actually says:
- There is an implied warranty of habitability in rental housing that landlords provide to tenants, which means that the house that is rented to a tenant needs to be safe enough to live in. This is cited as a note under Wis. Stat. 704.07, which says "Landlord and tenant law — the implied warranty of habitability in residential leases. 58 MLR 191." 58 MLR 191 refers to this legal explanation of an implied warranty of habitability.
- The landlord is supposed to "deliver the premises in a fit or habitable condition" and is supposed to "maintain the premises during the tenant’s tenancy." If the lease authorizes the landlord to do things besides providing a habitable unit, then the lease is void and unenforceable. Wis. Stat. 704.44(8)
- Under Wis. Stat. 704.07(2), the landlord has many duties to repair, and must comply with all local housing code.
I had a year long lease. But now the rental has been incredibly damaged by the water, and I'm not sure it'll be possible to repair it. Will I still have a lease for a year?
It's complicated. This law says that if a premises were to be damaged by "by fire, water or other casualty" (not because of the landlord's negligence), then the landlord ceases to have the responsibilities to repair the unit. In the end, it kind of releases everyone from the contract through constructive eviction.
Now, constructive eviction is a messy topic (we dive into it here), and normally it's a stance that only a tenant can claim. However, in serious repair situations (fire and flood are the main problems), where the landlord didn't cause the problem, and the problem is too big for a landlord to reasonably fix within the lease term, constructive eviction can be triggered at the point of the disaster. Please note that if a tenant disagrees with this reading (like, maybe, the tenant thinks that the landlord's negligence impacted the severity of the problem, or that the problem is easily fixable), then the tenant can opt to act like it's a repair issue, and follow the steps on our repairs pages (see our repairs page for Wisconsin, or for Madison & Fitchburg). (And more information about negligence is here.)
There's water in my house. Who is supposed to clean it up? And how well? And how quickly?
It's a landlord's duty to take care of all structural repairs, and do all repairs that are necessary to get the rental unit up to code. However, the law really doesn't say what the timeline is for this, nor the quality of the work. Since the specifications are pretty open ended, it means that the local building inspector can get involved no matter what the landlord did, if the unit is not up to code.
Generally speaking, repairs need to be made in a reasonable amount of time, and must be done well enough to bring the rental unit up to code. If a tenant is concerned that a landlord isn't acting reasonably, then one of the best things they can do is write a letter. See our repairs page for Wisconsin, or for Madison & Fitchburg, for sample letters, law citations, and suggestions for next steps.
My stuff has been damaged by flooding. Who has to pay to replace it?
You do. Or your renter's insurance, if you gave yourself that gift.
Sometimes, landlords end up responsible for the costs of a tenant's belongings, but that's only when the landlord's negligence was the reason that the belongings were damaged in the first place. More about negligence here.
The water in my basement has turned into mold. What do I do?
Mold is the worst. Our mold information is on this page. Upshot: please please please write a letter (there's a sample letter on that page), and then, if nothing improves, call in the cavalry (building inspection, DATCP, or health departments, all linked on the mold page).
* 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.