Minnesota legislators are considering making it easier for thousands of tenants to have their eviction record erased or hidden from public view.

As the state grapples with nearly 14,000 home evictions per year, legislators and housing advocates say that the blemish on tenants’ records is unfairly making it harder for them to find property owners willing to rent to them.

Proponents say allowing old evictions to be erased from the court system would help renters find housing amid Minnesota’s severe shortage. But landlords say that the proposed rule would stymie their ability to weed out tenants who skip out on rent or damage properties.

The bill would restrict public access to eviction records in two ways: Cases that don’t end in an eviction judgment against the tenant would not show up in court records, and eviction judgments more than three years old would automatically be expunged.

The measures were wrapped into a housing omnibus bill passed in the DFL-controlled House earlier this week. That bill is now headed to conference committee with the GOP-controlled Senate. It’s unclear if the provision will make it into the final bill in the waning days of the legislative session.

Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, assistant majority leader in the House and sponsor of the bill, said that retaining eviction records that are more than three years old “doesn’t really serve any purpose,” and that tenants deserve a second chance. She argued that her bill does not protect bad tenants, because evictions would still appear on people’s records, but only if there’s a formal judgment.

“If you’re a good landlord, this doesn’t impact the way that you do your practices,” Hassan said. “If you were a landlord who is in the habit of taking advantage of poor people who don’t know their rights, who don’t have time in the day to go out to court and fight against you, then this should impact the way you conduct your business.”

There’s already an eviction expungement process in place in Minnesota, but housing advocates say it’s time-consuming and costly. Currently, Minnesota residents can file for eviction expungements but have to pay as much as $400 in court fees. And even after filing, getting the eviction erased is not guaranteed, particularly if a tenant does not fulfill the settlement agreement, such as paying off rent or moving out on time. The proposed bill would change the criteria so that evictions would be automatically expunged from a tenant’s record if the case is settled or dismissed.

Tenants can try to explain the eviction, but “the landlord will see that as a black mark,” said Eric Hauge, executive director for Home Line, a nonprofit focused on tenant advocacy and legal services. He said part of the problem is that there’s no explanation on a tenant’s eviction record beyond whether it was settled or dismissed.

“It’s creating sort of an underclass of households that are going to have a lot more difficulty finding housing,” Hauge said.

But landlords often file evictions because they’ve run out of options, says Carol Buche, owner of Twin City Tenant Check. The St. Paul company does between 5,000 to 8,000 applicant screenings per year for property owners.

She said she’s “utterly opposed” to expunging evictions because it’s “one of the pertinent pieces of information” that landlords have. Rental application denials often involve other factors besides evictions, including credit history, criminal records or inadequate income.

“It’s not an automatic ‘I’m not going to rent to you,’ ” Buche said. “There’s almost always multiple reasons why someone is not accepted.”

She said renters with prior evictions should acknowledge it on their applications. They can also help their cases by getting a letter from a current or previous landlord showing they finished paying their rent and left the property in good condition. Applicants with substance abuse problems can include a counselor or sponsor’s contact information, she said.

Evictions “almost always” are a result of tenants not paying their rent, Buche said. “A lot of well-meaning people think this is going to solve a lot of peoples’ problem with finding housing, but you’re only helping the tenant probably very short term.”

 

Correction: A previous versions of this article misspelled the name of Rep. Hodan Hassan.