When tenants come in to talk to us about non-renewals, it seems like one of those things, where everyone knows non-renewals are a possibility, where they are a recognized fact of rental life... but when it happens to you, when you get non-renewed, it feels kind of like a car wreck. Unexpected. Damaging.
I've written before about the amount of notice required for choosing not to renew a lease, but here we talk about the why. What reasons can a landlord use to choose not to renew a lease? What does it look like for those tenants? How can you respond if it happens to you?
Generally (with a few notable exceptions, below), landlords and tenants do not have to give a reason for choosing not to renew a lease.
This can be exceptionally damaging to long-term tenants where nothing is in writing. Over the years, I've heard my fair share of elderly renters, calling to say that they've lived in their home for 20 plus years, it's been years since they had a written lease, and suddenly they get a 28 day non-renewal notice. Sometimes it's because of a change of owner, sometimes it's because the owner wants to renovate, or give the unit to their kid who just got a divorce. These things are hard to hear, and I wish that we could have magic happy solutions for everyone. (Boy do I! If you have one of those, please let us know.)
Even though a landlord doesn't have to give a reason for a non-renewal (though sometimes those non-renewals must be in writing), there are reasons that a landlord is not allowed to give a non-renewal:
Discrimination: A landlord cannot give you a non-renewal, and cannot choose to not renew your lease, for reasons that are discriminatory. Discrimination means giving tenants different treatment because they are different from other tenants in a way that is protected by the government. There are lists of protected classes on our Discrimination page (see #2 for all those classes).
It's important to understand that it's perfectly legal for a landlord to choose between people and tenants, but that landlords can't make those choices based on things like race, family status, and whether or not someone has a disability. Landlords can choose not to renew a lease because the tenants smoke, because they got bedbugs, or because the tenant didn't do a good job following the lease while they were there. This is tricky stuff! Call Fair Housing if you have questions about housing discrimination.
Retaliation: A landlord cannot give you a non-renewal, and cannot choose to not renew your lease, for reasons that are retaliatory. Retaliation means that the landlord opted to not renew your lease because you asserted or attempted to assert your rights as tenants (the exact lists are in Wis. Stat. 704.45, ATCP 134.09(5) and MGO 32.12(4)). More information about Landlord Retaliation is here.
It's important to understand that it's perfectly legal for a landlord to choose between people, but that your landlord can't make that choice based on who asserted their rights as tenants. In the City of Madison, according to MGO 32.15(2), if the landlord refuses to renew a lease within 6 months after a tenant complains about the rental to any government agency, then it's automatically presumed to be retaliation.
Steps you can take if you think your non-renewal is illegal (due to reasons that are discriminatory or retaliatory):
Write a letter. It's really important to write a letter if you think that the non-renewal was because of discrimination or retaliation (reasons are in this blog post).
- Here is a sample letter for non-renewals that are illegal because of retaliation.
- Here is a sample letter for non-renewals that are illegal because of discrimination.
- How to use these letters: Fill in the parts with [these kinds of brackets] and then delete the brackets. Delete the stuff in italics - that's just for your information, and you probably don't want it on your final letter.
File a complaint. You can file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for non-renewals based on retaliation or discrimination. You may also be able to file a complaint with your local City Attorney, if there are local ordinances saying that landlords can't give non-renewals based on retaliation or discrimination.
Once the non-renewal end date happens, you have three possible outcomes:
- Option A: If you pay the next month's rent, for the month after the non-renewal date, and the landlord accepts that money, then you've established a new tenancy, and you can stay. Woohoo! Law is Wis. Stat. 704.25(2)c - read it and make sure you agree with us. Also, make sure that you can prove you paid the rent.
- Option B: You can move out and keep track of all of your extra expenses because of the move (moving truck, extra rent paid because the new unit is more expensive, etc). Then you can sue the landlord for those expenses in small claims court. You can sue for double damages for acts of discrimination and most acts of retaliation (contact us with questions). Small Claims Court tips are here.
- Option C: If you stay in the unit after the non-renewal end date, and the landlord hasn't accepted the next month's rent, then the landlord can evict you for "holding over." If you get to this point, then you'll be fighting the reasons for your non-renewal in eviction court, and it's scary! If you lose, and the judge doesn't side with you in believing that your non-renewal was illegal, then you'll be evicted. If you end up in this situation, it can really help to get support from an attorney.
Some things to think about:
- It's okay for leases to be verbal! And it's okay for some non-renewals to be verbal. But it's not okay for month-to-month non-renewals to be verbal. Those must be in writing. More about in writing vs. not in writing and number of days required at www.tenantresourcecenter.org/notice_when_ending_a_tenancy
- If you get a 28-day non-renewal notice, then counting the days is surprisingly hard. Make sure it was done correctly - if it wasn't, you might be able to stay another month. More at www.tenantresourcecenter.org/how_to_count
Exceptions: These situations require reasons for giving non-renewals.
Mobile Homes: If you own or rent a mobile home, then you have be given a reason with your non-renewal, in order for that non-renewal to be legal. Depending on whether you own that home, or rent it, and the size and location of the lot, will say whether or not those reasons have to be in writing. More explanation and links to the laws on our Mobile Home Basics page.
Dane County: Both the City of Madison and Dane County have current ordinances that say that a landlord needs to give reasons for non-renewals to the tenants they are non-renewing. However, 2013 Wis. Act 76 seems to have made that requirement illegal. These are probably not good laws to assert at face value (ie, it's not likely they will help you if you pursue them on your own.) To complicate things, the City of Madison has indicated they may prosecute landlords and fight any legal challenges to local control. The City of Madison is also pursuing charter ordinances to override the statewide preemption. You may want to call your local City of Madison Alder or Dane County Supervisor to see if it's possible that your case may be one they wish to use to dispute the law.
- City of Madison's must-give-a-reason-for-a-non-renewal law is MGO 32.08(5)c.
- Dane County's must-give-a-reason-for-a-non-renewal law is DCO 31.24(3).
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.