Landlords on the Offensive in Wisconsin

It has already been five years since the housing market began its downward spiral. But far from a recovery, prices continue to fall in many markets and foreclosure rates remain high. But it is not only homeowners that are suffering. Renters are also feeling the pain of the crisis.

On May 26, three Republican senators in Wisconsin introduced a bill to prohibit local governments from legislating rules to protect tenants from landlord abuse and discrimination. The bill, SB107, is basically aimed at the city of Madison, which so far has the best local laws protecting tenants’ rights throughout Wisconsin.

If this bill passes, Madison’s landlords may require a Social Security number, ask for proof of salary of up to three times the price of rent, and could use any criminal record—without any time or severity limitations—to deny a tenant’s application. The bill would also remove the deposit limit—currently one month in advance—while in other cities, landlords ask for the first and last months’ rent as well as a deposit before allowing the tenant to enter the building. In addition, landlords would no longer have to notify renters 24 hours before entering their apartment.

How would this affect the families of low-wage workers, immigrants, minorities, students, and the poor in general?

In short, landlords will have new ways to drive families out of their buildings. Thus, undocumented families, the poor, or people with a criminal background, no matter how minor the offense, will not be free to choose where they want to live. For these families, good quality apartments are already hard to get, and the new law will make it even more difficult, forcing them to live in apartments with the worst conditions: dirty, humid, in a state of disrepair, etc.

Why such a law now?

Despite the crisis we are living through, Madison has experienced an increase in reliance on rental housing, with 50% of the city living in rented spaces. More and more families have been losing their homes, and many others cannot afford to buy one. This increase in demand has led to a dramatic rise in rental prices. In the last year alone, one and two-bedroom apartments have risen by 15%!

“Businessmen fill their pockets with money while spending no money on repairing and maintaining homes; it’s a perfect business,” explained Jorge Carrera, an immigrant father of one. “I have been without a stove for three weeks, but I have to pay rent anyway. Under the current law I can ask for part of my rent back, but if they pass SB107, the landlord is not obligated to pay me anything, even though my family has been uncomfortable and in fact we are forced to spend more money eating out. How can this be fair?”

The landlords’ association has lobbied to remove protections for tenants so they can keep raising rents, while maintaining thousands of poor and immigrant families in health and hygiene-compromised housing.

The housing situation for the poor has been steadily worsening for the last few decades; cases of fraud and abuse multiply each month. The new law would only worsen the situation in Madison. It is yet another turn in the ongoing one-sided war against housing conditions for the poor in Madison.

Safe, affordable housing is a right, not a commodity!

One of the important aspects of Marxism is that it allows us to study and approach issues from a very definite perspective and framework. No longer do we need to try to find a solution within the limits of capitalism and the free market. On the contrary, we analyze the situation and propose solutions from the point of view of the interests of the working class as a whole.

In this case, despite the surplus of empty homes across the nation, the number of homeless families is skyrocketing, and housing for low-income families is actually degrading, while prices are rising. How is this possible?

This is just one more painful example of how the free market is anything but “free.” For starters, the relationship between landlords and tenants is extremely unequal. Landlords are united and pay politicians to shape the housing market in their interests, for maximum profit, no matter the consequences for millions of working families in the country. This is why basic rights such as housing, education, and health care should not be left to the mercy of the free market and to parties that defend the capitalist system.

But if the workers are united we can fight back and win. In order to tip the balance of power toward the working class majority, the labor unions must harness their tremendous resources and mobilize their members to fight for the right to quality housing for all. And in order to have laws that protect and guarantee that right, the labor movement must build a political party that can fight in the interests of the workers: a labor party based on the unions.

Housing is the very foundation for the health, protection, and comfort of our families. In a so-called civilized country, with huge resources in technology, labor and wealth, providing decent housing for all families should not be a problem. The only thing that prevents our society from providing such a basic right is the vicious opposition of the capitalist minority, who resist any and all attempts to improve the quality of life of the majority if it means fewer profits for themselves.

Workers in the U.S. need to unite around the housing question and fight for what is right for our families. The unions must play a leading role in this, mobilizing the working class to fight the landlords and their politicians. We need to fight for real and lasting solutions that can solve our problems, and that means not limiting ourselves to solutions within the framework of capitalism.

A Program for the Housing Crisis:

• No to SB107! For a Wisconsin and U.S. Tenants’ Bill of Rights.        

• For the creation of city-wide action committees formed by tenants, activists, community organizations, and the unions to define and fight for tenants’ rights. Bring together residents from every rental property, neighborhood, and community to hold the landlords accountable!

• For an immediate moratorium on evictions! For the nationalization of foreclosed and vacant homes, to be allocated to those in need under democratic workers’ and community control, with residents of foreclosed properties allowed to stay in their homes.

• No compensation to the foreclosing owners, except in cases of proven need. Rent for all housing, including Section 8 and government-owned housing, to be fixed at not more than 10 percent of wages, as part of a voluntary, national plan of safe, quality, and affordable housing for all.

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