Rental evictions are the front line of the affordable-housing crisis in our state and are a topic that should be investigated and used to form or revise public policy on an ongoing basis. Thank you to the Star Tribune for covering the number of evictions and their impact throughout the state (“Rental evictions declining in Minn.,” front page, Feb. 17).
The numbers cited, however, are misleading low. As noted in the article, it should be clear that comparing evictions between 2009 and 2019 is inordinately impacted by the foreclosure crisis (where an eviction is the final step), given that there were 23,019 foreclosures in 2009. This apparent decrease is not, in fact, a reduction in rental property evictions. The article also fails to account for eviction cases that were filed but since have been expunged or removed from the public record. This oversight ignores the thousands of cases that threatened the housing stability of families, and in many cases made families homeless, but are no longer included in the public data used for the article.
Even if we set aside the issue of misleading data, we disagree that 15,000 evictions per year is “a glimmer of positive news.” This means that 15,000 families are impacted every year by threats to their housing stability and that cumulatively during the past 10 years, more than 200,000 households have faced severely restricted access to future housing opportunities. Despite Minnesota judicial branch record retention guidelines that say otherwise (many cases should be destroyed after one year), those 200,000 cases remain publicly searchable, affecting a tenant’s record indefinitely, regardless of how the final outcome of the case is reported (a settlement or “other” outcome is still seen as a negative mark for a prospective tenant).
With more than 200,000 evictions filed in the past 10 years, and per census data an estimated 626,513 renter households in the state, it is possible that up to 30 % of Minnesota renters have an eviction on their record that can keep them out of housing indefinitely. How might this be affecting the housing crisis and homelessness in our state?
Further, there was only a brief mention about the disproportionate impact of evictions on people of color. Courts don’t collect demographics in civil cases, but there is research demonstrating such disparities. For example, both Matthew Desmond’s 2012 research and a local qualitative study produced by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs found that single black women were in eviction court disproportionately more than others. This has serious and harmful fair housing implications that warrant creative solutions.
Lastly, Minnesota’s eviction statutes are largely the same as when they were when adopted as territorial laws in 1851, a process designed to quickly determine who should have possession of a unit. Minnesota has not kept up with other states, nor have we adapted to technological advancements that have greatly eased and increased access to eviction data as well as tenant screening algorithms that turn away prospective renters with imperfect records. Minnesota’s eviction process is one of the fastest in the nation and requires no advance notice to the tenant before a case is filed (a requirement in all but a handful of other states). The instant the eviction is filed, it is immediately on the tenant’s publicly available record. Then, when tenants show up in court, they will find an intimidating process that treats them as just one of dozens of case numbers that the court is obligated to move through quickly and endure, while only hinting at a chance of due process for the tenant defendants. Local studies have found that most eviction cases are only open within the courts for around two weeks, meaning tenants may be out on the street only a week or so after learning of an eviction filing, and usually after only a single, extremely brief court hearing. While initiatives increasing access to lawyers at court have helped a small minority of tenants access advice and representation, more than 90% of tenants are left to navigate this warp-speed process alone.
This is why it is past due time for the Minnesota Legislature to take up comprehensive reforms to the eviction and expungement processes. Last year the House passed a policy requiring that evictions only become public after a judgment is entered while also providing greater flexibility for tenants to remove evictions from their record. This year a pre-eviction notice bill is expected to make progress at the Capitol, requiring that tenants be formally notified before an eviction is filed. These two policy ideas are reasonable interventions that are not new ideas throughout the country. While more legal support, mediation and emergency financial assistance have made some improvements in the number of evictions filed, until we take a serious look at the underlying outdated legal processes, evictions will continue to create a subclass of renters.
Eric Hauge is executive director of HOME Line.