A landlord-shaming project in Madison goes national

The Slumlords website offers renters some leverage in a rigged legal landscape.
An illustration shows the face of a middle-aged white man under a magnifying glass. A slash of black ink obscures his eyes and nose. Surrounding him are graphics of red speech bubbles, and under him can be seen the roof of a recent-model apartment building.
Illustration by Kay Reynolds.

The Slumlords website offers renters some leverage in a rigged legal landscape.

It only took a few months after its April 2022 launch for Madison Slumlords, an online rogues’ gallery of the worst Madison landlords, to start gaining national attention. 

“People on Twitter were like, ‘Wow, we could really use this in Los Angeles. We could really use this in Kentucky. We could really use this in New York,” the creator of Slumlords tells Tone Madison. “I think that if there’s a city with a landlord in it, then you can get put on the list.”

Now, what started as a project to help Madisonians avoid signing a lease with a slumlord—with the added perk of public shaming—is being built out to go nationwide, with the help of tenant advocacy groups in other cities.

“I would like to see the site grow to a national level and have information for landlords in every major city and state in the country,” Slumords’ creator says. “And I would hope that it can be used as an organizing tool. I want it to serve the larger function because currently there isn’t really a website that I can name that does this, because there’s no profit incentive to shit on landlords all day.”

The creator of Madison Slumlords has obtained legal counsel, who confirmed that everything the site is doing falls under free speech. But they’re choosing to remain unidentified because “Are landlords the litigious type? Yep, they are.”

The project started because they found that websites such as Zillow and Apartments.com don’t give renters enough information to determine whether a landlord is decent or a slumlord, so they don’t find out until the lease is signed.

“I was just like, well, screw that,” they say. “I’m just gonna make a website specifically for Madison to start off with so people can see what they’re getting into.”

Before you get anxious that they’re coming after your buddy who rents out one of the floors in their two-flat, the person behind Slumlords says that’s not their focus.

“They could be if somebody takes the time to write a complaint about it,” they say. “[But] to be honest with you, they’re probably not gonna be the first ones up on the site anyways.”

Instead the site is focused on the big fish—landlords with at least seven or eight units whose primary occupation is as a landlord, as opposed to someone with a full-time job who receives rent as a secondary income. And the listings are based on submissions. The site’s creator argues that if someone is willing to devote their spare time to sending in a complaint about their landlord, they should take that seriously. 

“We don’t have any rules,” they say. “If you felt compelled enough to come and find the site and write a submission for it, we will put it on the website.”

They were surprised how quickly the site took off, receiving hundreds of petitions to add landlords to the list and laying out what renters have been through. One that Madison Slumlords’ creator finds particularly aggravating is the number of complaints from women about maintenance and work crews entering an apartment without permission, when legally they are required to provide 12-hour notice.

“Quite simply, landlords don’t have respect for and don’t follow the law,” they say. “I think it’s something that every renter can relate to, is running into issues with your landlord and getting pushback and then realizing that you really have no rights.”

Since 2011, Wisconsin’s landlord-heavy Legislature has passed several landlord-tenant laws heavily tipping the balance in their own favor by limiting municipalities’ ability to create or enforce housing standards and the rights of tenants. 

Not only have these laws led to a decline in housing quality across the state, they have also contributed to housing instability. Matthew Desmond’s 2016 nonfiction book Evicted, which received the Pulitzer Prize, followed several Milwaukee landlords and tenants from 2008 to 2009, documenting how people at what should be the bottom of the ladder continue to be kicked further and further into poverty due to housing instability. Desmond went on to Princeton and founded the Eviction Lab, which compiles and analyzes eviction data nationwide and inspired Wisconsin’s Department of Administration to also compile statewide eviction data.

Against a legal framework tilted heavily in favor of landlords, Madison Slumlords has turned to a tactic as old as time: public shaming.

“This is a back-to-the-wall solution, but one that we’re happy to do,” they say. “I don’t really care about the profit incentive [for the website]. I’m more interested in leveling the playing field, essentially giving people a little bit of leverage back.”

More broadly, they take issue with the idea of landlords as a profession, and dispute the notion that they bring value to the market. 

“The landlord themselves is often a person who’s actually performing little to no labor,” they say. “Just owning a property and charging someone to live in it is not, doesn’t create any value.”

“People say, ‘Landlords perform maintenance on the property, they bought the property to begin with, they took all the risk, they do all the cleaning, all the upkeep and such and such.’ But it really is not the case,” the site’s creator says. “There are entire companies that ‘property owners’ can outsource all of the dirty parts of landlord management, AKA having to treat people like humans and also maintain the property. And they’re not incentivized to do that.”

And for landlords who take issue with being added to the list, Slumlords has the following advice:

1. Stop being a slumlord

2. Get a job

3. Support your community

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