Conversation on Housing: Kail Decker and Raphael Ramos

The assistant city attorney for the city of Milwaukee and the director of the Eviction Defense Project discuss housing.

Desperation and Eviction

Kail Decker, assistant city attorney, city of Milwaukee
Raphael Ramos, director, Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project

There’s something strange happening at the bottom of Milwaukee’s now notorious housing market: Properties in the city’s troubled central neighborhoods are being rented at exorbitant rates, relative to both their own values and to properties elsewhere in the metro area. The ripple effects of this – in evictions, quality of life, health, education and nearly every other measure of well-being – are profound.

Kail Decker has proposed a solution he believes hasn’t been tried before. He calls it rent correlation, a law tying the maximum monthly rent a landlord can charge for a property to its value – in Milwaukee’s case, 2.5 percent. On the eviction side of the issue, Legal Action of Wisconsin created the Eviction Defensed Project in 2017, and since, Raphael Ramos’ organization has provided legal aid to more than 1,000 people facing the loss of their home. But the need is enormous and continues to grow; Milwaukee County courts processed more than 14,000 evictions in 2017, eclipsing the record set the previous year. – Moderated by Chris Drosner

Read more conversations in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Read an extended version of this conversation here:

Desperation and Eviction: Kail Decker and Raphael Ramos

KD: Milwaukee has a housing problem, no doubt, overall. [But] the vast majority of the city is entirely unimpacted by eviction. Everyone should be concerned about it, but we are really talking about a pretty isolated geographic area, and it all surrounds poverty.

RR: Yeah. I think that’s not an accident, right? The fact that evictions are low in one area but so much higher in another is because they’re self-reinforcing.

KD: That East Side building doesn’t have the same issues because those people are not in danger of being homeless that day, so they can afford to walk away. For some folks, it’s either this [property] or “I have to go to a homeless shelter tonight.” They’re desperate for a place, so they’ll accept subpar housing and pay whatever amount, even if it’s overpriced.

Rejectability is one of the primary characteristics of a working capitalist market. If you can’t reject the thing you’re looking to buy, that market is broken. That’s what’s happening with rent prices in the areas that are most impacted by evictions.

RR: You put people in a situation where they cannot afford their place, then they’re forced into eviction, which further narrows the housing stock that’s available to them. You go from a situation where you’re paying too much for a bad place, to paying even more for a worse place. It’s a downward spiral that’s impossible to get out of, especially with the way that the courts handle records of evictions. It’s the modern-day scarlet letter.

KD: A rent correlation law simply sets the maximum amount of rent you can charge based on the assessed value of the building. If you set that rate so that it only covers noncompetitive markets, you won’t impact private landlords who are just charging a normal rent in a competitive market. They don’t have to charge different rents. They don’t have to deal with any government bureaucracy. About 80 percent of the city right now would be in that situation if this law was created.

RR: What you propose, I think, would have a really beneficial impact to tenants, knowing that conditions [in the rental property] are often the root of nonpayment. This sort of system incentivizes repairs, which would improve the living conditions for the tenants. They’re not paying $1,500 a month so that they get an apartment that doesn’t have a functional furnace or that has leaky pipes.

I think it’s an attractive option. I’m not optimistic enough to say it would fix everything.

KD: I am.

RR: Poverty and economics is sort of the specter that lives behind everything, but it would definitely be a significant step in the right direction.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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