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Death to the August lease

Madison’s moving-day “traditions” are horrible.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

A few of Madison’s annual apartment-move traditions look especially repulsive this year, if not flat-out dangerous. I don’t have any real idea how many renters in Madison will actually be moving this year, but chances are most of them will be doing so within the next few weeks, given that so many apartment leases in Madison begin on August 1 or August 15. Some of these tenants will have a night (or more, if they’ve jumped from an August 1 lease to an August 15 lease) in between the move-out deadline for their current place and the move-in time for their new place. And with varying degrees of reservation and self-awareness, they might participate in the annual free-for-all of dumping unwanted household items on the curb and/or hunting through other people’s cast-offs.

In Madison you’re conditioned to think of these things as charming local quirks, especially if you’re an undergrad getting your first off-campus apartment or an otherwise young person without a whole lot of experience navigating the housing market. Crashing on a friend’s couch for “homeless night” while somehow finding a place for all your shit? It’s an adventure!

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A sponsor display for The Sessions at McPike Park.

In fact, these are all signs of dystopian neglect in Madison’s housing policy, and the blatant self-dealing of landlords in the Wisconsin State Legislature doesn’t help. Landlords are doing what’s convenient for them, externalizing the costs and adding to the profound stress of moving. State laws preempting local rental regulations weaken tenants’ power even more. Renters are subject to a million other small frustrations, humiliations, and rip-offs, and really the ultimate solution is for landlords to just not be a thing, but August leases and the “homeless night” (yes, I hate that term and its air of gleeful slumming too) are the big ones.

So-called “Hippie Christmas” is comparatively benign, and wouldn’t flood the curbs with so much stuff at once if we could address the other two problems. I’ve been thinking about these problems a lot, because I’ve lived in 10 different places since moving to Madison in 2006 (kill me), and because I’m working with one of Tone Madison‘s contributors on an upcoming piece that takes on a different but related facet of renting in Madison.

The City of Madison’s info page on moving-day trash disposal notes that “most downtown area apartments” are on August 15 leases. But we all know that people far beyond downtown live on a timetable set by shitball campus slumlords. I’ve lived in one downtown rental and a bunch of places on the East Side, and they were all on August leases, except for a couple of sublet situations. This cycle really only makes sense if your living situation is completely tied to UW-Madison’s academic calendar, and that’s not the case even for a lot of people who work on campus, including a lot of grad students. It’s a bit annoying and paternal, kind of like all the people over 50 in Madison who use “are you a student?” as their go-to conversation starter for anyone under 40. It’s always a bit exhausting trying to explain that a college town has a lot of life going on outside the college sphere, but anyways.

This logic creates an absolutely miserable situation: Thousands of people moving at once, during the hottest time of the year, clusterfuck upon clusterfuck as demand spikes for storage spaces and moving-truck rentals. And now, during a pandemic, we’ll have people moving in and out on top of each other. Some of them will have to find temporary quarters between apartments and thus increase their potential exposure. Hopefully people will be more conscientious about indiscriminately curbing large amounts of stuff or taking home things that haven’t been sanitized.

The dominance of the August lease doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for anyone other than landlords and large property-management companies. Neither does the fact that people with signed leases are allowed to be technically without a home for any length of time (not that anyone should be without a home, ever). If an apartment needs to be empty for inspection and cleaning between tenants, shouldn’t policymakers and landlords figure out how to accomplish that without displacing anyone? Isn’t providing reliable shelter the one function of a landlord? 

Getting us out of this cycle, and giving tenants more flexibility to move on timelines that suit their lives, would be a messy process. Staggering leases in a coordinated way around different areas of the city, or securing more month-to-month leases, might offer good starting points. Thanks to those state-level preemptions mentioned above, the City of Madison and Dane County can’t technically pass a lot of new rental regulations, but I almost think it would be worth it for local governments to just defy the state and force the issue. I’m not counting on our current elected officials to do anything so bold, but they should demand that landlords come to the table and invest real resources in a solution. Until then, fellow renters, be sure to drink plenty of water, lift with your legs, and know what few rights you still have.

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