The state Supreme Court should order an immediate halt to all eviction proceedings statewide, Legal Action of Wisconsin said in a letter sent to the justices Friday.
“This Court has the power to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections by halting evictions, and it should do so without delay,” Deedee Peterson, the nonprofit’s executive, told the justices in the two-page letter.
The letter from the agency that provides legal services to low-income people comes three days after Peterson urged circuit courts in the 39 counties in its services area to stop serving eviction orders in their counties.
The new letter asks for a similar prohibition statewide as well as an order banning the courts from “otherwise allowing eviction actions to move forward.”
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“Some counties have suspended eviction proceedings and stopped executing writs,” Peterson wrote. “Many counties, however, continue to allow evictions to proceed. This county-based approach puts lives at risk simply because of where they live.”
Gov. Tony Evers is also looking at the impact that COVID-19 is having on housing. Asked whether he supports a statewide moratorium on evictions, spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in an email: “We are looking at executive options and interested in working on bipartisan solutions.”
Eviction actions have ground to a halt in Milwaukee and Dane counties. In Dane County, Chief Judge V.L. Bailey-Rihn ordered Tuesday that the eviction orders, known as writs of restitution, not be served. In Milwaukee County, Circuit Judge Pedro Colón on Wednesday ordered that the nearly 50 orders pending in the state’s largest county not be served until at least mid-April when he will have a hearing on the matter.
The writs are the final step in an eviction proceeding. When a deputy serves a writ, the tenant must vacate the premises.
“A Milwaukee County family struggling with a job loss as a result of the pandemic, for example, will not immediately face an eviction hearing as a result of their inability to pay rent,” Peterson wrote. “A family under identical circumstances living in Rock County, however, may be forced out of their home. Not only is this situation unjust, it exacerbates the current public health crisis.”
Much of the the Milwaukee County court system, including the eviction court, is shut down until at least April 3 because of the health crisis.
Peterson said placing a moratorium on eviction proceedings is needed to protect the health of all the parties involved in the eviction process, including sheriff deputies, court officials, landlords and tenants.
“Even as public health officials at all levels of government urge people to stay home, Wisconsin’s courts are requiring landlords and tenants to appear in public places, in large groups, for high-stakes hearings about their rights,” Peterson wrote, referring to the courthouses that remain open.
She noted that if an eviction is ordered by the court “local sheriff’s departments face significant health risks while entering families’ homes to evict them.”
The former tenants face risks because they “may need to double up with friends or family, or turn to already overburdened homeless shelters,” Peterson said. ” All these scenarios elevate the risk of virus transmission for landlords, state officers, tenants, and their communities.”
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