Wisconsin and federal law give tenants strong protections when landlords discriminate against their mental or physical health conditions. Landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations for tenants’ handicaps.
Wisconsin and federal law cover mental and physical health-related handicaps. A “health condition” is much broader than a diagnosed disease in official medical books. It can be any mental or physical impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. Conditions that may not obviously be a disability qualify for protection, such as a sports injury, hoarding tendencies, or paranoia. Of course, medically diagnosed conditions also qualify, such as HIV, cancer, Alzheimer’s, or bipolar disorder. The law also covers tenants that had a history of such an impairment and tenants who have been regarded as having such an impairment. Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Wisconsin expands on federal protections by extending the protections in situations where the landlord discriminates based on a belief that the tenant has a disability when in reality, the tenant does not. Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Landlords cannot discriminate against recovering addicts unless they are currently using or addicted to illegal drugs. Discrimination against alcoholics is illegal.
Tenants may request reasonable accommodations for their disability. Tenants should request a specific change that would help in writing to ensure that there is a record of when the request was made. Landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations to help tenants’ disability. For example, if a tenant breaks their leg, the tenant is likely entitled to a makeshift ramp to enter and exit their apartment (or another low-cost solution). If a tenant’s mental condition disturbs their neighbor, the tenant is often entitled to the option of moving to another vacant apartment in the building (so long as the cost is reasonable to the landlord). Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Modifications to Apartment
Tenants are entitled to make reasonable structural modifications to their apartment to suit their handicap or disability – landlords cannot typically say no. However, these modifications must be made at the tenant’s expense, along with the costs of restoring the apartment to its original state. Landlords are also allowed to charge an additional deposit to cover the cost in case the tenant fails to restore the apartment to its original state. Tenant’s Guide to Fair Housing (by HUD)
Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs
Service dogs and emotional support animals are always permitted, regardless of the landlord’s pet policy. In addition, animals may serve a reasonable accommodation for a tenant’s disability even if the animal has no special designation. For example, a deaf tenant may have a dog that will help alert them to smoke and fire dangers in lieu of auditory smoke alarms. Layman explanation from AAOA HUD Service and Assistance Animal Guidance
Asking About a Tenant’s Disability
It’s generally illegal for landlords to ask whether a tenant has a disability, the nature or severity of a handicap, what treatments or medications they take, or whether they have seen a psychiatrist. However, the landlord is permitted to inquire about the disability in the limited circumstances where the tenant is applying to housing set aside for people with disabilities or if the tenant is asking the landlord to make a reasonable accommodation for their disability. To determine the accommodations needed, landlords are allowed to ask about the nature of the disability. Tenant Resource Center on Renting with Disabilities
Exception for Dangerous Tenants
Wisconsin has an exception for tenants that may pose a direct threat to the safety of other tenants or persons on the property. For example, a landlord does not have to rent to a person who has a mental condition that makes them violent. Similarly, if a tenant is throwing things off their balcony due to a mental disorder, the landlord may decide to evict them despite their condition. However, to be safe, landlords should look for any reasonable accommodation that they can provide to the tenant (e.g., moving the tenant to a room without a balcony).
Tenants may report discrimination regarding mental or physical health conditions to the federal government directly. They also have the option in Wisconsin to report it to state authorities. Tenants may choose to report the problem to both.
What happens when a tenant reports a problem to the federal government? The most recent year we have data is from 2016. In 2016, 63.4% (41.2% from Wisconsin) of discrimination cases were resolved in the year they were filed. 32 out of the 51 discrimination complaints from Wisconsin were about discrimination against those with mental or physical health conditions. Landlords that violate the federal Fair Housing Act can face civil penalties up to $16,000 for a first violation and $65,000 for future violations (each act of discrimination is a separate violation). In cases where the Justice Department is involved, civil penalties may rise to $100,000 per violation and federal courts can add additional damages. Landlords should also keep in mind the time and costs involved in defending against an action by the federal government. About 36% of complaints end up with a charge or settlement, based on 2016 data. Data.gov
What happens when a tenant reports a problem to the authorities of Wisconsin or a local government? They may ask the tenant for information to help bring the case, including any evidence (e.g., emails and pictures). If the government finds there’s sufficient information between the tenant’s complaint (as well as complaints from other tenants), the landlord may be charged and taken to court to defend themselves. Landlords will likely receive fines if they lose. The amount of the fines will be determined in part by the severity of the issue. Fines increase significantly for repeat offenders. Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 . Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Reporting a Violation
Tenants may report violations of federal laws (i.e., discrimination against children and families) through the HUD website – it can be done online or via phone. Tenants can report issues to their state government by looking at the state website. A google search for “report fair housing violation in Wisconsin” will likely provide applicable information. In either case, tenants may be able to call the number on the page to ask whether their situation legally qualifies as rental discrimination.
Retaliation by the Landlord
Federal law (the https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaintFair Housing Act ) makes it illegal for landlords to harass a tenant in retaliation for reporting a problem. Examples of such harassment may include raising the rent or threatening to evict the tenant. Each such attempt is an additional violation. These protections do not apply if the tenant complained about something that they don’t have right to, so tenants should know whether it’s a violation. Dept of Housing and Urban Development.
State and Local Laws
Laws differ heavily by state, county, and city. Use RenterPeace to see more specific laws for to a given apartment and to see comments from people in your area.
Documenting the Problem
For most problems, tenants should document their issues, notify their landlord (document this too!), and stay informed about their rights. Renterpeace is a free website that helps with each step of this process. Tenants use RenterPeace to more easily see applicable laws, track their problems, and much more. There's a reason RenterPeace was selected "Best of" legal apps for both Android and iOS. It also includes household management tools, like a chore manager and bill tracker. Try it - you don't even to login first.
Using Property Management
To stay updated and organized about the problems in their apartments, landlords should use a property management system. Many are expensive or have high setup fees, but using RenterPeace for landlords is free. It's complete with legal compliance tips targeted to their problems, maintenance tracking, tenant screening, money-saving grant information, and tenant chat. It makes managing properties easier and staying updated about status of rental properties a breeze. Try it today.