UWO Back to School Rental Population Grows: Tenant Rights Association Could Serve Needs

OS_housingBY Lori Palmeri

As sure as the leaves change and fall, students return, moving in a new crew of those looking for education and getting their “first place”. With that comes a new cycle of rental turnover in the central city. The learning curve both on and off campus is a challenge for all residents. And, according to the Department of Agriculture and Trade Consumer Protection: OUT OF THE TOP TEN CONSUMER COMPLAINTS Landlord/Tenant concerns are at #3 in Wisconsin!

While Oshkosh municipal code allows investment property owners to leave permanent rental signs on occupied properties year round, what of the rights of the renters? Often, these are the first off-campus apartments for students not familiar with the upkeep and responsibilities such as lawn and snow removal. Their leases get piled into a stack of the already overwhelming paperwork from their primary purpose for being here; school. Where garbage cans go on which days is the last thing on their mind.

But what about information on the rights of renters; how is that communicated to students and other renters not otherwise informed? The information that follows is for their benefit. The central city is predominately rental housing, with a few owner occupants still remaining. With that in mind, should the City of Oshkosh provide advocacy for the vulnerable often housing cost burdened rental community? Or should tenants take it upon themselves to start a resident led tenant association. Perhaps a bit of both could yield a healthy prescriptive.

In recent years, the Rent Smart program has offered tenant and landlord education in the form of a one day workshop aimed at providing balanced information on rights and responsibilities for both parties. Is that enough when approximately half of the 20,000 housing units in the city are occupied by renters?

A significant number of investment owners live outside of Oshkosh and more commonly, outside the state of Wisconsin. Who attends to maintenance or keeping an eye on the property when absentee landlords do not? These situations are dependent on a complaint based system, by surrounding neighbors reporting issues. While some investment owners have a manager who is responsible for leasing and turnover, few inspect the properties personally. Meanwhile, if renters have issues with basic maintenance, how many are aware of their legal rights, and of those who are, how many have the courage to exercise those rights without fear of some form.

WHAT is a tenant association?

It is an organization of tenants whose aim is to improve the housing conditions, amenities, community life, and legal positions of its rental members. Typically they meet on a regular basis to discuss rental conditions and how to improve them.

WHO can join a tenant association? Will your organization be only for tenants or reach out to “Landlord” investor owners as well? Will you allow tenant advocates to participate in meetings?

WHY form a tenant association?

A Tenant Association can help you and your neighbors build relationships in your community; have your voice heard in decisions about the conditions and future of your building; and help conversations take place between tenants, owners and managers to make your home a better place to live. You work together to call for repairs, challenge illegal rent increases, and maybe purchase the building when put up for sale.

Successful tenant associations have helped members to improve their living conditions and exercise their rights, while learning about responsibilities. There is also safety in numbers; by working together, your voice is heard with an echo and less fear of being marginalized. As renters, you are paying your landlord’s property taxes and mortgage on the property in the form of rent.

HOW is a tenant association formed? 7 Simple Steps…


  • Ask the question “What could we improve in our rental situation?”
  • Talk to other renters to find out what common concerns exist.
  • Meet for fun and get to know each other and what the concerns are.
  • Organize and plan for a first meeting and follow up meetings along with the organizational structure – who will play what role? Do we have leadership or champion to see this through?
  • Plan – create a list of goals and concerns you would like addressed and document your plan.
  • Implement your action items by working with others and amongst yourselves. Perhaps hold some social and fundraising events, a flyer making party to get the word out and educate tenants on their rights.
  • Review your progress, fine tune any areas that need it. Measure your goals and objectives based on what you started with.

Of course, not all renters are students. Since the recession, the number of renters has increased greatly as foreclosures left homes in limbo for several years. The boomerang adult children living with parents or grandparents are ready to start leaving the nest – again. And, empty nesters or retirees are abandoning the home maintenance for freedom to explore other interests. Some purchase condos, some rent. That is all to say, many people choose to rent. The rights of tenants has been long ignored in Wisconsin cities outside of Madison. Is it now time to collectively address issues affecting tenants when it comes to housing conditions? Find out more at some of the following resources.

Lori Palmeri, a resident of the central city neighborhood of Middle Village Oshkosh since 2008. She received her Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from UW Milwaukee and has been a local urbanist and neighborhood organizer since 2010. She has also worked with neighborhoods in central and northwest Milwaukee.

Resources for further support

  1. (WI Tenant rights and information) Current laws in WI and a phone support as well as walk in assistance (Madison).
  2. – How to organize, what questions to ask…
  3. Wisconsin Way – and explanation of WI Tenant Landlord Laws
  4. Winnebago Co. Rent Smart – Helps 1st time renters or those having a hard time learn Rights and Responsibilities of tenants – UW Extension (920) 232-1973
  5. Oshkosh Healthy Neighborhood Alliance – meets at 6pm on the 2nd Tuesday of month at United Way. Contact Planning Services Division, Oshkosh. (920) 236-5126.
  6. Landlordology – Statewide educational program summarizing rules for Landlords
  7. Excellent website for downloading templates and ideas for organizing (Washington DC area Latino Econ Development Center) building and sustaining successful tenant associations.

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