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Wisconsin DOJ Sues Rent-To-Own Housing Company Over Deceitful Practices

Google Streetview, Image from October 2015
Vision Property Management has this Milwaukee home on West Congress Street available on its website.

The State of Wisconsin wants a rent-to-own company to stop operating here. Based in South Carolina, Vision Property Managementdraws people into deals to rent or lease houses with the promise of eventually owning them.

The problem, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, is that some of the homes the company markets are in terrible shape. The use of such deceptive practices is illegal in Wisconsin. But one housing law expert says Wisconsin has changed several of its landlord tenant laws since 2011, creating an environment where the scheme has been able to continue.

For the past 13 or so years, a UW- Madison law professor, whose only name is Mitch, has been practicing rental housing law. He says rent-to-own deals are relatively common. Mitch says the people who typically sign up for them don’t earn much money and have bad credit. And like many other Americans, they dream of owning their own home.

“When you think hey look, you could potentially own this house for only $41,000. It’s this great promise, right, for someone who doesn’t think they could ever potentially save up or get financing for a home from a traditional lender. And so that person is by definition vulnerable because they’ve been cut out of the regular market and the math is incredibly hard,” he says.

Across the state, Vision Property Management owns about 200 homes that it offers to rent or lease to low-income individuals, with a deal that the person could eventually buy the property. The agreement also requires the person to bring the home up to code within four months and pay all back taxes. But according to the Wisconsin DOJ, some of the houses are uninhabitable, and Vision Property Management did not disclose what it would really take to bring the properties up to code. Yet if the tenant fails, they face eviction.

Mitch says in 2011, Wisconsin began to pass laws favoring landlords over tenants. For example, he says beforehand, the state required landlords to disclose any code violations they know about, based on a reasonable inspection.

“You know the law now says, this added statue says a landlord only has to disclose those things that they know, they have actual knowledge of,” he says.

Mitch says the new law gives landlords an out because they can claim they didn’t know about problems. And he says, municipalities can no longer set their own laws regarding landlord tenant dealings.

“The legislation that was passed into law and signed into law just a few years ago preempted a local municipality’s ability to pass most rental housing regulations. And actually wiped away many rental housing protections,” Mitch says.

He says typically, local officials can respond faster than the state can to renter complaints and pass ordinances to protect people. But with those protections lifted, people could have complained for years about Vision Property Management and local lawmakers’ hands were tied.

Mitch says that while he’s happy the DOJ is filing a complaint against the South Carolina rent-to-own company, he wishes Wisconsin would revisit its landlord-tenant laws.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for Thursday morning in Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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