New revisions to Wisconsin Landlord/Tenant Law became effective in April 2018. The law (1) codifies guidelines regarding service and emotional support animals (2) severely restricts local rental property inspection trends that treated rental owners like a municipal piggy bank (3) allows owners to easily avoid liability for renters’ unpaid municipal utilities and (4) makes several administrative and procedural changes that limit judicial discretion in lease termination cases.
Disclaimer: This is not legal advice. It a common sense review by an experienced career real estate professional. The reader should check the statutes themselves or consult legal counsel.
Service and Emotional Support Animals
- The Difference Between Disability Assistance Animals. A “service” animal has been professionally trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled individual. The most common and clearly identifiable would be a seeing-eye dog for a blind person. Other medical assistance service animals include hearing dogs for deaf people and seizure response dogs for people with epilepsy. Trained service animals are extremely well-behaved, calm and fully obedient to the owner’s commands. An “emotional support animal” (ESA) generally is not professionally trained and is prescribed as part of a person’s mental health treatment. Common disorders that are frequently treated with an emotional support animal include Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Autism. An ESA may legitimately be prescribed by mental health professionals to treat anxiety, fear or loneliness. An ESA may help increase pro-social and decrease antisocial behaviors.
- Rules. If an individual rental applicant or tenant has a disability and disability-related need for a trained service animal or an emotional support animal, it is discrimination for a person to refuse to rent, evict, require extra rental compensation or security deposit, or engage in harassment of the individual because he or she keeps such an animal.
- Documentation. The property owner may request that the individual submit reliable documentation that the individual has a disability and the disability-related need for the animal. If the animal is an emotional support animal, such documentation must be from a Wisconsin licensed health professional “acting within the scope of his or her license or certification” and subject to a minimum fine of $500 if the disability or need for the animal is misrepresented. Also, the renter is subject to a $500 minimum fine for misrepresentation of the need for an emotional support animal.
- Exceptions. Service or emotional support animal accommodation requests may be refused if: (a) the individual fails to provide the above requested documentation (b) allowing the animal would impose an undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of services provided by the lessor (c) the specific animal poses a direct threat to a person’s health or safety, or would cause substantial physical damage to property, that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation. Discrimination fines that may be levied by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are extremely high. Therefore, an owner should consult with the Milwaukee HUD office (414) 297-3214 before denying any applicant under exceptions (b) or (c).
Limits Municipal Rental Registration, Inspections and Fees
- Rental Registration. A municipal government entity may require registration of rental units or rental property owners. However, such registration may consist only of the name and contact information of one owner or its designated management agency. A one-time fee of not more than $10 can be charged per building (regardless of the number of rental units in the building). The one-time fee applies to the entire ownership term and may only be reassessed upon a change in contact information or ownership.
- Rental Inspections. Over the past couple of decades, many municipalities treated rental owners as a source of easy fee revenue. Those policies are over with uniform and strict limits on local governmental inspections and fees. The statute limits all rental inspection fees to the objective finding of a “habitability violation” Defined as (1) lacking hot or cold water (2) heating facilities that cannot maintain a living area temperature of 67 degrees (3) no or unsafe electrical service (4) conditions that constitute a substantial hazard to the health and safety of the tenant other than neglect or abuse by the tenant (5) not served by plumbing and sewage facilities in good working condition (6) lacking operating smoke and CO2 detectors (7) rodent or insect infestation (8) contains excessive mold. If and only if, such habitability violations are discovered and not corrected within 30 days of notification, the municipality may charge an inspection fee of $75 for the initial, $90 for the second, or $150 for a third inspection. If no habitability violations are found or the violations are corrected within 30 days, the property is not subject to another program inspection for at least 5 years.
Unpaid Municipal Utilities
- Direct Tenant Billing for Municipal Utilities. When a municipality provides utilities such as water and sewer to a separately metered rental unit, the municipal public utility must send bills for the services directly to the tenant in the tenant’s own name.
- Tenant Forwarding Address Procedure. After a tenant vacates a rental property with municipal utilities billed to that tenant, the rental owner needs to provide written notice to the public utility with a forwarding address for the former tenant within 21 days of move-out. The municipal utility then will pursue the former tenant for any unpaid charges instead of adding them to the property owner’s utility bill as was common practice in the past.
Administrative Procedure Changes
- Owner Time and Materials Charges. When an owner chooses to repair damages caused by a tenant rather than contract the repairs with a third-party contractor, the tenant must reimburse the owner for the reasonable cost of the repairs. “Reasonable cost” is now defined to include materials and labor provided by the owner, charges for the owner’s time at a reasonable hourly rate for time purchasing or providing materials, supervising an agent, or hiring a third-party contractor.
- Rent Includes Late Fees. In any action to terminate a tenancy, “unpaid rent” includes late fees that have accrued over the term of the lease agreement.
- Credit and Background Check Fees. The maximum credit report fee has been increased from $20 to $25. Wisconsin owners may charge out-of-state applicants a maximum of $25 for a background check. (Wisconsin residents may not be charged for background checks because the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program (CCAP) is available for free.
- Delivery and Notice. Lease documents, security deposit disposition forms, notice of intent to repair and notice of entry may be delivered electronically. Notices terminating tenancy may be delivered by USPS Certified Mail. A summons and complaint filed under Chapter 799 do not have to be notarized.
- Rent Abatement. Previously rent abatement applied to “untenable” property. Now the law requires the property to be a condition that materially affects the health and safety of the tenant or substantially affects the use of the premises.
- Contested Eviction and Waiver. Previously a tenant could ask for a judicial hearing by claiming that a contested issue existed to delay an eviction. Now the law requires the higher standard of raising valid legal grounds to substantiate the request ask for a judicial hearing. Judicial waiver of eviction proceedings for Emergency Assistance is now strictly limited to only 10 days. The statute clarifies that any prior waiver of any violation or breach of any terms of the written lease agreement does not lessen the parties’ current insistence on the strict performance of the written agreement terms.