Shortly after graduating college, I got my own apartment. Nothing fancy -- it was a one-bedroom unit with a tiny kitchen, but the living room was spacious and bright, with six large windows overlooking an intersection from the second floor.
Everything was great, until a new couple moved in downstairs and the beatings began. Every two or three nights, it was a cycle: I'd know the husband was home because I'd hear him yelling at his wife. Then came the sounds of furniture toppling, lamps and glasses shattering, and the wife's screams.
After two or three hours of that, things would calm down. Relatively. Like clockwork, the husband would reach a certain point and begin apologizing to his wife. I couldn't hear what they were saying to each other, but I could hear the tone of the conversations. He'd go from screaming to making apologetic noises, and his wife's screams would become soft sobs, continuing for another hour or two before dying out around 9 or 10 p.m.
The first time, I was shocked. The second time, just a few nights later, I called the cops. They didn't show up. We were living in a city plagued by violent crime. There were 50 gang-related shootings that summer, in a city of only 25,000 people. While there's no excuse for ignoring domestic violence, the police department was overworked, and the city was too strapped to hire more cops. Things were not going to change.
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I called my landlord several times. He did his best to handle the situation, and to document the abuse in the hopes of getting the cops to respond, but it was a slow process. I'm no tough guy by any means, but one night, after coming home exhausted and waking up to the sounds of my neighbor beating his wife again, I went downstairs and told him I'd do to him what he was doing to his wife if I heard another peep. I couldn't take it anymore, and I was frustrated that I couldn't do anything to intervene.
The husband was all, "Yes, sir, I'm sorry, sir!" but it didn't really make a difference. A few nights later, he was back to his routine, and sometimes during the day I'd pass his wife in the hallway, feeling a twinge of guilt when she greeted me with an embarrassed smile.
I don't know why she stayed with her husband, but I know it wasn't easy for her. There are myriad reasons why she probably felt she couldn't get away. Looking back, I should have helped connect her with a non-profit for domestic violence victims. But what I do know is that it took the better part of four months for the landlord to finally get authorities to work with him, and the couple was evicted.
Too often, landlords have their hands tied when it comes to dealing with problem tenants. One case, made famous by a video that went viral on Youtube, involved a man who filmed his "neighbors from hell" for more than three years -- the half-hour, edited video shows hundreds of drug deals on his neighbor's front lawn, along with fights, parties, and road rage incidents in front of the house. Clearly, the local authorities weren't interested in doing their jobs. The video can be seen on Daily Motion (see credits below).
That's why lawmakers in Wisconsin want to pass a bill that would allow landlords to evict their tenants if police don't investigate criminal activity. Whether police are overworked and understaffed, or just refuse to do their jobs, the end result is the same for law-abiding neighbors who have to contend with drug dealers, domestic abuse, chronic noise pollution and other issues.
"This is used for criminal activity," Tristan Pettit, an attorney who represents landlords, told Wisconsin Public Radio. "The drug dealing. The beating somebody up. The threatening. The shooting off of guns. That is what we need this for, because right now, landlords cannot do anything about that."
It's a good idea, and a step in the right direction.
The proposal would take special circumstances, like domestic violence, into consideration. People who are marked for eviction would be able to take their cases to a judge, who could block the eviction. The proposal also protects victims of violence and domestic abuse from being evicted.
The proposal needs work. In domestic violence situations, the law should require landlords to partner with non-profits, to help domestic violence victims with rent payments or alternative housing options after their partners are evicted.
Burden of proof is important too, and it should be the landlord's responsibility to document the behavior that leads to an eviction order. Tenants shouldn't be tossed out on hearsay. The final version of the bill must be carefully worded and carefully constructed so that it does not become a tool for discrimination, a blunt instrument for landlords to use against tenants they don't like, or a way to clear rental properties so landlords can raise rents.
The bill should also require landlords to clearly document attempts to get police and other authorities involved. Complaint calls should be logged. Letters should be sent via certified mail with return receipts. Landlords should be required to keep copies of complaints they register with police and housing authorities.
Lastly, as it stands now, the proposed law would give tenants only five days to fight eviction. While no one should be forced to live with drug dealers, or in fear of stray bullets, five days is too small a window for something like this.
The Wisconsin bill passed the state's lower house by a margin of almost two to one, according to Wisconsin's WLUK, a Fox affiliate. As the state senate takes a look at the proposal, lawmakers should smooth out the bill's rough edges and make sure tenants have their rights protected.
But ultimately, for the sake of regular people who are entitled to peace, quiet and safety in their homes, lawmakers should pass the bill.