Landlord's protest ends lull in seasonal evictions

December 29, 1991|By New York Times News Service

MILWAUKEE -- For the first time in years, Robert Johns, a detective in the Milwaukee County sheriff's office, spent the day after Christmas evicting people.

In his time in the department, he has evicted thousands of tenants for non-payment of rent, but until last week, evictions in the two weeks around Christmas were almost unheard of here.

County judges called the informal policy, which one judge said dated back at least 30 years, a "Christmastime moratorium."

Detective Johns, who has been cursed at, spat upon and hit in the face with a brick during his seven years with the eviction unit, called it a "cease-fire."

Then, earlier this year, a landlord wrote to the American Civil Liberties Union office in Milwaukee complaining about the policy on the grounds that the moratorium "serves no secular purpose, and has the effect of promoting the religious celebration of Christmas."

The landlord added that "no similar rules prevent the eviction of Muslim tenants during the month of Ramadan, or the eviction of Jewish tenants during Passover."

Eunice Z. Edgar, the executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU, said her office then wrote to Patrick T. Sheedy, chief judge of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, outlining the landlord's complaints. A few weeks later, Judge Sheedy wrote back to say that the judges had voted to end the moratorium.

"For years we used to defend it on the theory that there were more Christians than anyone else, that Christmas was a major holiday," Judge Sheedy said in an interview. "But legally, there's no defense for it, so we ended it."

When word came down to Mr. Johns that the "cease-fire" was over, he worked several days of overtime just before Christmas to avoid doing any evictions on Christmas Eve.

There was nothing he could do about the day after Christmas.

There was nothing Shirley Spinks could do, either. As she sat crying in her living room, she said she was about a month behind in the rent for her shabby one-bedroom apartment.

Ms. Spinks, 28, said she had been on the telephone searching for a shelter for herself and her four children, the oldest of whom is 6.

"The emergency shelter lady told me everything was filled up until Saturday," she said. "This hurts, it hurts bad. On Christmas, your kids open their gifts and play and eat, and then the next day you have to get out. They don't understand evictions. They want to know where we're going to go."

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