Ashley’s Assignments: An Eviction Filing Can Stay on Your Record for Decades. Here’s How One Organization Works to Find Solutions In—and Beyond—the Courtroom.
In eviction court in Dane County, one organization helps negotiate agreements between landlords and tenants
Hi friends! Welcome to a series called ‘Ashley’s Assignments,’ where I’ll be sharing some of the work I’ve been writing for my journalism grad school course (and which I think will resonate with Boss Barista’s readers).
Today, I’m sharing a piece I wrote for an assignment with a very broad scope. We were told simply to “go to court and report what you see.” Here’s what I saw.
On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Josann Reynolds presided over half a dozen eviction hearings, most of which were settled before the parties even entered the courtroom.
Outside the courtroom, representatives from the Tenant Resource Center, a local nonprofit that works on housing issues, offered information and volunteer mediation services to landlords and tenants waiting to appear before the judge. When I arrived, one of the Tenant Resource Center workers approached me and asked, “Are you here for an eviction case?”
They’re a mediator, serving as a neutral party between the landlord and tenant. Throughout the day, they and other Tenant Resource Center workers would sit down with landlords and tenants to develop agreements amenable to both parties—either agreeing on a move-out date or utilizing resources, like rental assistance, to cover outstanding rent payments. By the time the parties got in front of the judge, most would present an agreement, sometimes called a stipulated dismissal, and the case would be closed.
“You see these rooms off the courtroom—that’s where they’ll negotiate,” said Susan Valentine, a volunteer court observer, pointing to two small conference rooms just outside the courtroom. Valentine said she was inspired to observe court cases after taking a history class at the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. “We’re looking at how fair these eviction trials are,” she said. “The process can be very intimidating for tenants.”
“Our housing counseling team is present at every eviction court hearing and eviction court trial,” said Hannah Renfro, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center. “We’re there to provide information to tenants and landlords—if they have questions about repairs, how to get an emotional support animal and accommodation, ways to pay rent, and how [tenants and landlords] can work with each other and repair that relationship.”
Renfro said the goal is to intervene and find solutions before an eviction notice is even considered. “When an eviction is filed, that stays on somebody’s record for two years,” said Renfro, regardless of the outcome. Even if the eviction is filed in error, or the landlord and tenant quickly come to a solution, the record remains.
But the consequences can become more permanent when a judgment of eviction is issued. If an eviction case goes to court and a judge finds in favor of the landlord, that judgment of eviction can stay on a tenant’s record for up to 20 years. The issue of shortening the length of time an eviction remains on someone’s record is currently in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
A judgment of eviction—or even an eviction filing—can impact a person’s ability to find housing. Landlords can look up information about potential tenants for free through the Wisconsin Court System website, also known as CCAP.
According to Renfro, Madison’s vacancy rate, which measures the percentage of available apartments, is particularly low. The Housing Snapshot Report, a report published by the City of Madison, estimated the vacancy rate was around 4% in 2022, the last year data is available, although some experts estimate that the percentage is actually lower. According to the U.S. Census, the national vacancy rate for the second quarter of 2023 is 6.3%.
With a highly competitive rental market and few available apartments, landlords can use information about past evictions to make decisions about future tenants.
“Landlords can skip over somebody who has an eviction filing because they’ve got a hundred other people that they can rent to,” Renfro said.
"Evictions really affect people’s lives," Valentine said.
However, some judges encourage both parties to work together to find solutions. Valentine has observed more than 100 court cases (not all involving eviction) and said mediation is common—although, during the last hearing, when the judge asked if a mediator was used, the parties answered no, technically. The Tenant Resource Center did assist, but the mediator was not called in for the last negotiation.
Regardless of who drives the final arbitration, on this day in Judge Reynolds’ courtroom, most landlords and tenants found a solution other than eviction. During one hearing, Judge Reynolds asked the attorney for the landlord, David DeHorse, if the parties had met with the mediator. “I don’t think there's going to be any mediation on this case,” he said. His client clutched a neon blue file folder labeled “EXHIBITS.”
“I’m going to ask you to go talk to the mediator,” Judge Reynolds replied. The parties went into one of the conference rooms, followed closely by the Tenant Resource Center mediator. They were able to reach a solution within minutes.