Bribing Landlords to Follow the Law: Milwaukee County’s Housing Policy


A 2018 Milwaukee County Ordinance bans housing discrimination on the basis of “receipt of rental or housing assistance”: if you have a low-income housing voucher, like Section 8, and a landlord refuses to rent to you because of it, that landlord is breaking the law. 

Despite that fact, illegal discrimination against people with low-income housing vouchers is still common. As part of an effort to address this, the County Department of Health and Human Services Housing Division, headed by James Mathy, authored a report and made a few suggestions. 

The report actually just made one suggestion: bribe landlords to follow the law. 

The report wastes little time, stating in the second paragraph that “With additional financial supports (“landlord incentives”) provided as needed to targeted rent assistance households, the rent assistance products offered by Housing Services can further reduce landlord’s concerns about the risk of unanticipated financial burden and loss of rental revenue”

In the first place, why is reducing landlord’s “concerns” a priority for the Housing Division, apparently superseding their websites’ slogan of “supporting individuals accessing and maintaining housing”? Does the Housing Division take for granted that alleviating the worries of landlords is a precondition for individuals to access and maintain housing, no matter the basis of these anxieties? As we will see, that does indeed seem to be the case, though the humane impulses of DHHS staff with respect to the mental health of landlords is noted. 

In the second place, what are these concerns? “Thankfully,”, writes Mathy, “insights have already been gained from rental housing owners in the area. A community partner and key asset to landlord engagement strategy insights, Rental Property Association (“RPA;” formerly known as, “Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin”), facilitated an essay-based survey to rental housing owners and property managers in late 2021 that asked about their negative experiences with federally subsidized rent assistance products within the greater Milwaukee area…” The Rental Property Association, according to its website, has been “advocating for Rental Property Owners in Wisconsin” since 1974. So, a bunch of landlords conducted a survey amongst themselves, and our local government used it as the basis for policy. 

Discussing this RPA survey, the report finds that: “The 2nd highest complaint was that there are more physical damages caused by rent assistance households and undue financial strain when rent assistance payments are withheld by rent assistance programs due to a failed inspection as a result of tenant damage. While there was a great deal of variance in sentiment regarding this matter, there is no data that suggests rent assistance households, on average, cause more physical damages [emphasis ours]. Yet, damage mitigation funds are highly sought-after by landlords to ensure reduced risk of loss of rental revenue, and especially for households with criminal backgrounds, eviction history, and other proof of prior, unsuccessful tenancies.”

No Data”…

Read that again. There is no data that suggests that people with low-income housing vouchers are ‘problem tenants’; these landlords are delusional, and yet they have been rewarded for it. This month, the Landlords Incentive Fostering Tenancy, or LIFT program, will lift $356,000 from the County’s rainy day fund and use it as a ‘damage mitigation’ fund for landlords. 

Why is this tolerated? Not only is the thinking delusional, but the action is illegal. A law, of course, is only words on paper unless it can be enforced, is enforced;  enforcement is a matter of political will. The majority of Milwaukee County residents are tenants, not homeowners or landlords, but we shouldn’t expect the interests of the majority to be represented by local governments. Our local political class instead represents the interests of real estate developers, landlords, and businesses with the extent of their representation varying in proportion to both their power in the community and the size of their campaign contributions. It should go without saying that people using rent assistance vouchers do not make large political contributions, and so do not make policy. Tenants in general are not yet organized enough to exert their will on local politics, which is where you and I come in. When we’re organized, and fight for one another’s interests, we can not only force local governments to represent us, we can also directly address our own concerns with the parasites who own the roofs over our heads. 

Despite the fact that we are enduring a housing crisis in Milwaukee, people in government seem to have some short-circuit in their brains which directs them to attempt to solve every problem by handing over more public money to landlords. We have a housing crisis in Milwaukee, because we have a housing market. Making a commodity of a universal basic need, in this case, shelter, inevitably results in people having uneven and unequal access to that basic need. Housing should not be a commodity, and working class people should not have to fork over increasingly large shares of their income to some rich guy for the privilege to not be homeless. At MATU, our vision is a Milwaukee without landlords, where housing is a human right, and that phrase is a reality. Join today and fight with us.