MILWAUKEE – Are you looking for an apartment? Good luck. You might need it. Rising rents and low vacancy rates mean some tenants in Greater Milwaukee are finding they can’t compete for homes or afford to keep looking.
Apartment hunting became Michelle Pruitt’s second full-time job. The single mother of three has rented a house in West Allis for six years. Now its owner has to sell it.
“I don’t know what to do,” Pruitt told Contact 6. “I pay all this application fee, $20 and $25 here and there, filling out applications left and right so no one ever calls. ”
Pruitt says she spent at least $500 on application fees and lost money to rental scams. In just over a month, Pruitt says she researched about 100 apartments. Her landlord told Contact 6 that Pruitt was a “wonderful tenant.”
“I’ve never had bankruptcy, eviction, late rent, nothing,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt says she is denied renting apartments that cost less than the one she lives in. She told her kids they might have to give up their pets to get approval for a new home. She works for the federal government and also enrolls her oldest at Marquette University.
“I pay $1,150 in rent. Plus, I make sure there’s food on the table. Plus, I make sure there’s clothes on my kids’ backs,” Pruitt said. “Besides sports or whatever they want to do. I’m making my way.”
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According to Co Star, the apartment vacancy rate in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties is 3.2%. This is a slight increase from 3.1% compared to September 2021.
CoStar defines the vacancy rate as the total number of unoccupied units compared to the total inventory in the market. It tracks over 106,000 units in the Greater Milwaukee area.
Data provider CoStar says vacancies have been declining for several years and peaked at 6% in the Greater Milwaukee area at the end of 2017. Among the 50 largest markets, Milwaukee has the fifth highest vacancy rate low in the United States.
Currently, Wisconsin’s vacancy rate is 3%, below the US average of 5%. In the city of Milwaukee, vacancies are a bit higher at 3.7%. CoStar expects vacancies to remain extremely low in the near term.
Low vacancy rates mean landlords can afford to be picky.
At the Milwaukee Rental Housing Resource Center, Shawanna Lindenberg says they hear complaints from tenants about higher rents, security deposits and application fees. They also hear of landlords imposing income requirements, meaning they require tenants to earn two to three times more than their monthly rent.
“They want to see that you can cover your rent and have that excess for other living expenses,” Lindenberg said. “I would say I notice a trend in these calls, definitely.”
It’s a test Pruitt has heard she fails when competing with two-income households.
“Give us a chance,” Pruitt said, wiping away a tear.
Heiner Giese is an attorney for the Apartment Association of Southeast Wisconsin (AASEW). He says landlords are raising their rents to market levels, raising the bar for tenants to meet their income requirements.
Giese says it’s been the general rule for years that tenants pay no more than a third of their income in rent, and many landlords use it as a requirement during the screening process.
Giese’s advice for Pruitt? Look for a “mom-and-pop” owner.
“If she’s looking for a smaller owner, someone more flexible, who appreciates that she has a good record, they’ll break the rules,” Giese said.
Giese says many landlords require doubled security deposits. He says this is likely a consequence of pandemic eviction moratoriums and the toll of some landlords. He also mentions Milwaukee’s relatively new EvictionFreeMke program, which offers free attorneys to tenants facing eviction. According to Giese, this is something that can prolong the deportation process.
“Some landlords are like, ‘Well, if the rental goes south, if I can’t get my rent, it’s going to take me an extra month to evict this tenant, so I better get some money from advance,” Giese said. “Of course that’s going to happen, unfortunately, more in low-income areas.”
Colleen Foley is executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. She says the EvictionFreeMKE program levels the playing field between tenant and landlord. She says it can really improve communication between the two parties.
“Over time, it will show, I think, that it speeds up the resolution,” Foley said.
Foley says that before the program, only 3% of Milwaukee tenants facing eviction had an attorney in court. Now, she estimates the number to be between 16% and 20%.
In a week, Pruitt says she could be homeless. She will continue to look for an apartment and move forward so that her children will witness her independence and that she has not given up.
“I’m going to keep looking, even after this,” Pruitt said.