Wisconsin prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income. While landlords are allowed to ask for proof of income and ability to pay, they cannot deny housing or charge a tenant a different amount based on their job. There are few exceptions for illegal sources of income.
Discrimination against a tenant’s source of income usually arises when a tenant’s legal job appears immoral to the landlord or otherwise conflicts with their values. Strippers, people working at a political campaign, marijuana growers (in states where it’s legal), planned parenthood and NRA employees, and online personalities often face issues. In Wisconsin, denying a tenant for any of these reasons is a violation of the state’s fair housing protections. Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Illegal Sources of Income
One major exception is that landlords can reject tenants whose current source of income is known to be illegal. For example, if the landlord knows that tenant is currently making their money as a drug dealer, a prostitute, or through robbery, they can safely deny that tenant. In addition, landlords can consider the harm that a tenant may cause to other tenants in the building. However, denying all applicants with a criminal history is illegal – see the section regarding criminal histories. Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Perceived Job vs Actual Job
Wisconsin law clarifies that tenants are protected even if the landlord discriminates based on their mistaken perception of the tenant’s job. For example, a landlord might rejects a tenant because they learned they work at a strip club and assumed they are a stripper. If it turns out that the tenant was actually an accountant for the strip club, the landlord is still liable for discrimination even though they were not discriminating against the tenant’s actual job. Landlords in Wisconsin should simply avoid making decisions based on a tenant’s profession. Wis. Stat. 106.50 , Wis. Stat. Sec. 106.50 .
Section 8 Voucher Recipients
Some localities in Wisconsin prohibit landlords from discriminating against tenants who are attempting to use Section 8 vouchers. In particular, these areas have laws prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders: Dane County. Landlords are always free to deny Section 8 applications for the same reasons they would deny any other tenant (e.g., for having a felony murder in their criminal history). To be safe from accusations of denying tenants based on their voucher, landlords should have a documented process that shows good reasons on why they rejected each tenant. Locations with Section 8 Discrimination Laws .
Newly published guidance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that landlords cannot deny all applicants with criminal records due to the disparate impact on minority groups. First, the department distinguishes arrests and convictions. Denying housing based on mere arrests alone are discriminatory since innocent people can be cleared of charges. Landlords should be careful since most tenant screening software looks at arrest records, rather than convictions. When there is a conviction, landlords are prohibited from denying all tenants that have a conviction. Landlords must look at the particular applicant, how long ago the crime was, and what the person has done recently. In other words, blanket bans of tenants with criminal records are now illegal and landlords should implement a policy of having conversations with convicts to determine whether they are dangerous. Tenants can report such issues here . Layman Summary , HUD Guidance .
Because discrimination by source of income is only protected by the state, tenants must report issues to the state government, not the Dept of Housing and Urban Development. If a landlord is discriminating based on a tenant’s housing voucher status, the tenant should report it to the state or local government that authorized such protections.
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 .
If landlords are discriminating based on one’s criminal history or their housing voucher status, tenants should report it to the federal government. They can also report it their state or local government as well. What happens when a tenant reports a problem to the federal government? 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
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.