Greg Wallace is dyslexic and considers himself illiterate.
People who can’t read or write often have a hard time finding a place in society, but Wallace found value in his hands.
After occasionally borrowing money from his landlord, a man Wallace once considered a father figure, he agreed to use his handyman skills at his rented Janesville home to repay his debt.
Then came the questions.
His landlord told him he still owed money. Wallace struggled to pay rent. He kept working, but he couldn’t get his head above water. He began to wonder who was in debt to whom.
Earlier this year, his landlord told him he needed to move out.
For now, it’s not an eviction, but Wallace’s days inside his home of six years on East Memorial Drive are likely numbered.
Data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab shows Rock County in 2016 had an eviction rate of 3.2%, the fourth-highest in Wisconsin, but that doesn't count people such as Wallace and others asked to leave their homes before being evicted.
Nobody knows the total number of people asked to leave their homes, but local housing advocates say whether it’s through an eviction or some unofficial means, losing a home or apartment can leave residents scrambling.
And as the housing market tightens and rents rise, evictions are expected to rise, too.
The Gazette spent months talking to renters, landlords and others who are stepping carefully through the city's changing rental landscape.
Agreeing to leave
The jury assembly room at the Rock County Courthouse was packed on a Friday morning. Many in the standing-room-only crowd had received eviction notices from their landlords.
The eviction notices seemed to cut across every slice of Rock County life. Young and old. Black and white. A family with two infant carriers scanned the room for a place to sit.
Court Commissioner Stephen Meyer presides over small claims court every Friday morning. Not everyone facing eviction gets evicted, but such hearings are the first steps in that direction.
As Meyer called cases, landlords and tenants approached the podium. Some landlords were accompanied by lawyers. No tenants had legal representation.
The parties talked logistics at the podium. Was the tenant contesting the eviction or the amount of rent owed? Did the landlord properly notify the tenant of the eviction? Did the two sides disagree over whether rent was paid?
If questions remained or if Meyer believed the tenant might have a valid argument, the case was forwarded to a judge for a formal ruling. These contested hearings often happen on the same day.
On one recent Friday, multiple contested cases in front of Rock County Judge Jeffrey Kuglitsch quickly resulted in evictions because the tenants didn’t show up. Two people walked in after their cases were called and soon left.
One landlord had his eviction claim dismissed because he hadn't given the tenant proper notice. He would have to start over.
Sometimes, landlords and tenants reach agreements to drop evictions—either at the contested hearings, in small claims court or before the case reaches the courthouse. The tenant agrees to move out by a certain date, and the landlord agrees to not pursue the eviction any further if the tenant is gone by the deadline.
Some landlords refuse to rent to anyone evicted within the past few years, so would-be renters with evictions in their histories can have a tough time finding housing. A settlement can help save a person’s reputation as a reliable renter.
But agreeing to leave home after being threatened with eviction still has consequences.
‘Your word is only good for so long’
Wendi Mogensen’s ex-husband insisted he would pay her rent after their divorce.
The lease was in his name. Paying rent would keep a roof over the heads of their four kids, ages 11 to 17. As they dissolved their marriage of 14 years, she continued to believe he would pay.
The eviction notice came days before Thanksgiving.
The family had received rental assistance through a federal Department of Veterans Affairs program because both parents served in the Army. Once her ex-husband moved out, the assistance stopped and was not transferred to her, Mogensen said.
It wasn’t the first time they had failed to pay rent. Several years earlier, the family was evicted in Nebraska. In Janesville, Mogensen’s landlord had let her clean his other properties as a form of payment, she said.
Mogensen wishes she had communicated better with her landlord after her ex-husband moved out. Maybe they could have agreed to let rent slide until she started receiving child support, she said.
“I’m not probably all that innocent, but I had so much going on at that moment. And (my ex-husband) kept saying, ‘I’m going to pay it; I’m going to pay it; I’m going to pay it,’” Mogensen said. “Your word is only good for so long until it’s not.”
She began calling shelters to check availability for her and her four kids. Some people from her church offered to let them stay on their couch, she said.
Mogensen’s church ended up saving her. Members of Trinity Episcopal raised roughly $2,000 for unpaid utility and water bills. Her ex hadn’t paid those, either, she said.
Mogensen said the landlord told her the housing authority helped pay off her remaining rent.
The two sides agreed she would move out by Jan. 1. She left in mid-December so the family could spend the holidays in their new apartment on Janesville’s west side.
She considers herself lucky. Not everyone in her position can emerge on their feet, especially after the despair she felt just months ago.
“I was crying all the time. It would be time to be going home (from work), especially at the end of the day, ‘Yep, time to go home,’ but it’s not really our home anymore,” Mogensen said. “Any minute, we’re going to be out of there. It was… it was heartbreaking.”
‘Part of the job’
An unexpected job loss or medical expense can prevent tenants from paying rent. Local landlords say they understand such situations happen, so they try to work with tenants rather than evict them right away.
Communication is key, said Mike Heiman of Walker Property Management. If a tenant’s rent is past due and they ignore calls, emails and in-person visits, the company has to move forward.
The company manages about 1,000 properties in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Few of its eviction notices reach the courtroom, and Walker typically obtains only a few court-mandated evictions per month, Heiman said.
Tenants sometimes don’t understand the effect withholding rent has on a landlord. Income from rental properties might help a landlord through retirement or help put a child through college, he said.
R.K. Smith Realty co-owner Mark Robinson attested to the high costs of eviction for landlords and said eviction is never the preferred choice.
“Generally, when there’s an eviction, the condition of the property isn’t very good … You don’t want to get a property back that needs to have a lot of work done,” Robinson said. “You’d rather have a tenant stay and pay their rent than to evict them. We try to get people to pay instead of evicting them. But sometimes it’s just not possible.”
R.K. Smith manages about 1,100 units in Rock County and averages about one eviction per month. The company will try to compromise with tenants as long as the tenants make an effort to communicate, Robinson said.
The same holds true for small-scale landlords.
Darcy Cherry oversees about 60 units in Janesville. One of her tenants is a single mom who’s fallen behind on rent. The woman already works six days a week and spends her lone off day cleaning Cherry’s other properties.
That’s someone who deserves an extra chance, Cherry said.
Evicting someone such as that would be emotional for any landlord. Sympathy wanes when a tenant lashes out, Heiman said.
“What’s made it an easier decision sometimes is when tenants don’t care to help us out at all. They’ll put you down personally. They’ll put your company down,” he said. “If that’s the game you want to play, I feel less emotion on what we have to do. It is part of the job.”
Balance of power
Heiman said it’s more common for landlords to be mistreated by their tenants rather than the other way around.
Others said landlords hold the power thanks to favorable state laws and toothless tenant protections.
Heidi Wegleitner, a staff attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, said few organizations besides her own provide free legal aid for low-income clients. Legal Action handles many types of litigation, but eviction cases are common.
Changes in state statutes under Gov. Scott Walker largely benefited landlords, Wegleitner said. Some changes reduced the authority of municipalities to regulate landlords and made it easier for landlords to acquire personal information about potential tenants, Wegleitner said.
Janesville Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said the landlord lobby is strong in Wisconsin. She couldn’t think of a similar lobby that spoke on behalf of tenants.
That leads to an imbalanced relationship, she said.
“I think oftentimes tenants don’t have the financial ability to consult with an attorney. Sometimes that type of legal advice really is needed for some situations,” Bedessem said. “We refer them to some of the free services. However, those folks are inundated with tenants and questions.”
Bedessem and Neighborhood and Community Services Director Jennifer Petruzzello oversee the city’s rental assistance program, sometimes known as Section 8. Tenants often pay 30% of their income toward rent, and the city uses U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money to pay the rest.
The pool of landlords that works with the city’s program has begun to shrink. Some landlords have raised rents above the federal fair market value. An apartment is ineligible to participate if it exceeds this standard, which Bedessem called outdated and not reflective of the local economy.
Other landlords might consider Section 8 tenants to be unreliable, an unnecessary risk when the local housing market is so tight, Petruzzello said.
As Janesville searches for ways to increase its housing stock, some developers say rents here are too low to justify new construction. Rents will have to increase, or the city will have to help finance projects.
If rents rise, so will evictions.
‘I don’t see an end’
The shortage of available rentals makes it tough for people to move, too.
Jennifer Parmer has lived near Janesville’s central fire station for almost three years. In that time, she’s dealt with multiple landlords and property owners—none of whom have taken good care of her three-unit building, she said.
The ample natural light in her apartment masks some of its troubling features. Electrical wiring isn’t properly grounded. Windows have been painted shut. Parmer ripped out moldy carpeting herself, only to expose dried vomit underneath, she said.
In October, she discovered the heat was not working properly. Multiple complaints and phone calls followed, but nothing was fixed for several weeks.
The city told the building’s tenants to temporarily leave Nov. 15 and ordered the landlord to correct the problem.
Several days after the heat was restored, Parmer’s landlord appeared at her door with a non-notarized eviction notice for unpaid rent.
The improper eviction notice might have stemmed from the stamp Parmer had forgotten on her November rent check. She sent another check. Both checks were cashed, she said.
She saw his actions as retaliatory and threatening, so she called the police. That halted the landlord’s effort to kick her out, she said.
Several years ago, before she moved into her current apartment, Parmer was briefly homeless. She believed her personal turmoil would go away after finding stable housing.
“I can’t believe I’m still here. I’m never going to get out of here,” Parmer said. “Rent is so expensive, you can’t save money. It gets higher and worse every year.
“Just when you think you might finally get a chance to take my kids out of a situation that is extremely stressful and depressing—I don’t see an end to it right now.”
‘I did that’
Greg Wallace circled the outside of the sea green home he rents, pointing out spots in the foundation he sealed. There used to be holes, but now the exterior concrete is smooth.
It’s not the only project he’s done here. He remodeled a bathroom in a neighboring unit, installed additional electrical outlets and put in a dishwasher and garbage disposal, among other jobs, he said.
Wallace also lent his handiwork to some of his landlord’s other properties. The two met at a Bible study and developed a strong friendship.
Doing repairs and remodels became an extension of his newfound friendship. The labor helped Wallace work off the loans he received from his landlord—loans separate from his rental agreement, he said.
Wallace borrowed money here and there over the past few years, mostly in small amounts. His landlord told him the loans added up to about $6,000 and that most of it had been repaid through labor or additional payments.
The line between paying rent and repaying loans began to blur. Wallace believes he overpaid and was not fairly compensated for his maintenance work.
As the situation got messier, Wallace was told this spring he needed to leave. The official reason? Dogs, which he’s had for years.
His two Shih Tzu poodles, Petey and P.J., help restrain his suicidal thoughts, he said.
Wallace still doesn’t know what his future living situation will be. He has not received an official eviction notice because his landlord said he signed a document agreeing to leave by June 1. Wallace said that's not true.
He wants an eviction notice because then he could get help from Legal Action. Until then, he won’t leave. He has no place else to go.
Wallace strives to return to work and become self-sufficient.
All his life, people have looked at him like he’s a “welfare case.” He wants to demonstrate that he has skills and worth even if he can’t read or write.
Making a decrepit property look presentable gives him fulfillment.
“What makes me feel good is when I turn around and walk out for the final time and I look at it, knowing that I accomplished it,” Wallace said. “Because I have this disability and people want to make me feel like I’m less than or my value is less than minimum.
“It helps me to know my value when I can look at a job and say, ‘Man, I did that.’”