JANESVILLE, Wis. — A message spray-painted on a two-story Janesville rental home accuses a tenant of not paying her rent. The vandalism not only makes a public spectacle of a landlord's ongoing dispute with a renter he's trying to evict, it also shines a light on the need for affordable housing in the city.
The words "Carol Daly owes $6,000 in back rent!" are scrawled in black letters, 6 feet (2 meters) high and 10 feet (3 meters) wide. They appeared on the front of the house, facing a busy street, on Nov. 12.
Daly said she considers the spray-painted message "slander," but does not dispute that she has not paid rent in some time. She told The Janesville Gazette the property has maintenance violations and she doesn't think people should have to pay for housing that isn't kept up. Her landlord, Ryan "Buddy" Wehrwein, is seeking a court judgment to evict her.
He has denied putting the message on the house, but says he won't remove it.
This case deals with more than a year of apparently unpaid rent. It's one of 350 eviction cases filed so far this year in Rock County Court as COVID-19 rent assistance and relief programs fade away and a local affordable housing shortage is hitting renters hard.
Janesville property inspectors have flagged several violations at Daly's apartment. City records obtained by The Gazette show some have gone unfixed, despite repeat notices to correct them since 2020. One violation includes a hole in Daly's ceiling: Daly keeps a mop and bucket in her living room because bathwater and sometimes toilet water pours down from leaky plumbing in her neighbor's apartment upstairs.
"When the water comes down onto my floor, I just yell up through the hole to tell the neighbors it's raining again," Daly said.
Wehrwein, meanwhile, showed The Gazette photos of some completed repairs at the apartment, and said Daly does not always give him access to make repairs.
"I'm more than willing to fix this stuff," he said.
Daly, 64, is disabled and lives on $900 in Social Security income each month. Her rent, if she had paid it, is $600 a month. She also has medical issues. The bones in one of her legs are fused together with metal and screws after she said she fell in 2020, shattering them in several places.
She is one of 400 people on a waiting list for city housing vouchers or other assistance amid a shortage of local affordable apartments and rising rent, Janesville Housing Services Director Kelly Bedessem said.
Bedessem said the list also includes an 88-year-old man temporarily living in a motel because his apartment was "absolutely uninhabitable."
Many local renters have seen rents increase by hundreds of dollars a month recently, Bedessem said, at a time when inflation is making everything from groceries to fuel more expensive. Meanwhile, a national eviction moratorium that went into effect during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has expired. While it helped some renters, it was a financial hardship on landlords, who sometimes could not collect rent, as the pandemic limited their access to tenant spaces for maintenance.
Bedessem said complex problems between some tenants and landlords — like Daly and Wehrwein — have now festered for more than a year.
Daly is seeking other living arrangements, as she tries to ignore the message on her house.
"I have all kinds of people who say they're trying to get me the hell out of here. But it seems like it's never going to happen. I call this place 'Hotel California,'" Daly said. "I can try to check out of here, but I can't ever really leave."