Freezing families: Renters going without heat in Milwaukee winters

Posted at 12:47 PM, Nov 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-20 13:39:33-05

State law requires landlords to heat their properties from November to April, but the I-TEAM found that isn't always happening, and families are left in the cold.

Shatashia Gatlin was left without heat last winter for nearly two months. The pipes burst, the thermostat bottomed out and frost formed along the walls of her home.

"It's the hardest thing honestly that I've ever had to endure with my three kids thus far," Gatlin said.

She and her kids, all under 5-years-old, tired to stay warm with several space heaters, but eventually were forced to move into a one-bedroom apartment with her uncle and mother while they waited for her landlord to fix the heat.

"It's a basic need in general living in home period, you need heat," Gatlin said.

In an open records request, the I-TEAM found more than 400 complaints filed with the Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services from renters without heat over the last three winters.

Kristen Reed, a supervisor with DNS, said renters should give their landlord 24 hours to fix the heat if it goes out during the winter if they don't contact the city for help.

"If they're not getting that response, we certainly want them to give us a call and let us be the bad guys and to try and help them get resolution to that," Reed said.

Shatashia's heat was eventually turned back on after calling the city. We found nine heating complaints filed against her landlord, Will Sherard, over the last three winters.

"He has had historically some issues," Reed said. "I wouldn't say he's a bad landlord, he's just got a lot of properties and it's a little difficult to maintain that so he's been assigned to special enforcement."

The I-TEAM called Sherard and went to his office twice, but we did not hear from him in time for our story.

"It's absolutely the landlord's responsibility to ensure that the furnace and heating systems are functioning and heating the property enough," said Nick Toman, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.

Toman helps renters out of bad living situations, and connects them with resources to either get the problem fixed, or find a new, safe place to live.

"There are situations where it is just no win and in those situations it's time to look for a new apartment," Toman said.

After living without heat last winter, Gatlin said she's looking at her options.

"Eventually when I get the funds to, I will move," she said.

If you're having issues with your landlord, you have to keep paying the rent as you wait for the problem to be fixed. Otherwise the landlord can evict you and DNS cannot protect you.

If you're having trouble with your landlord you can call 414-286-CITY (2489) to visit the city's website to report a problem online.

If you need legal help, you can contact the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee by calling 414-727-5300. You can also visit their offices at 728 N James Lovell Street during their intake hours on Monday and Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., or visit the Community Advocates website.