There's no question that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the deep racial inequities in Minnesota, including disproportionate job loss and inability to pay rent. But this crisis also elevated our collective instinct to care for our neighbors and underscored the ability of state leaders to move quickly and decisively to protect renters from the devastating long-term consequences of eviction.

When COVID struck, Gov. Tim Walz recognized that our homes were our first line of defense from illness and death and took the necessary steps to protect the lives of renters, safeguard public health and stabilize the economy. Research published in December evaluating the impact of eviction moratoriums in 44 states found that removing them resulted in an estimated 433,700 excess COVID cases and 10,700 excess deaths by early September — even before the pandemic hit its peak.

Our statewide eviction moratorium has saved lives in a uniquely challenging moment and proven that our state is stronger when everyone is housed.

As leaders begin to transition out of emergency response and consider an "off-ramp" for the moratorium, they must recognize that the COVID vaccine will not cure our housing crisis. The end of the epidemic will not remedy the economic catastrophe in our communities of color.

Before the end of the legislative session, our policymakers face an urgent and critical choice: step back the eviction moratorium with intentionality and sustain the housing stability of renters statewide — or fling open the doors to mass displacement that will negatively impact thousands of households for years to come.

With the Senate passing a bill that includes inadequate timelines and loopholes for landlords and lack of critical protections for tenants, it is imperative that affordable housing champions at the Capitol stand firm in negotiations and refuse to compromise the lives of countless renter households on the path to ending the moratorium.

Fundamentally, the off-ramp must be designed to ensure no evictions, not fewer evictions. With some of the widest disparities in the nation, Minnesota's housing system has been deeply flawed and inequitable for generations before the current COVID pandemic. Low-income people and people of color are dramatically disproportionately impacted by housing instability and loss of their homes through formal or informal eviction.

So, yes, we must support those who can demonstrate a loss of income or employment specifically because of COVID. But there must also be a strong commitment to protecting all renters, particularly renters of color who are most likely to experience housing discrimination.

In addition, the moratorium off-ramp must be engineered around the pace of the effective distribution of rental assistance. The vast majority of evictions are for nonpayment of rent. This past year the imbalance between the incredible speed of the eviction court process and the protracted pace of rental assistance has demonstrated that landlords can and must be patient in receiving payment when renters are in crisis.

More than half a billion dollars in emergency rental assistance is coming to Minnesota from Washington. It will take time and intention to get those resources into the hands of renters. The end of our eviction moratorium must follow the full distribution of that assistance — and include protections against evictions and lease nonrenewals for anyone who is eligible for these dollars — to prevent unnecessary and unjust displacement.

The moratorium off-ramp must also prevent landlord abuse by rejecting exemptions that undermine tenant protections by allowing landlords to evict tenants unfairly. For instance, something as small as a parking or guest policy violation can be deemed a "material breach of lease," leading to homelessness.

Furthermore, the off-ramp must provide automatic expungement of eviction filings that do not meet suspension requirements so tenants aren't burdened with illegal evictions on their rental histories. It must also include pre-eviction filing notice (so tenants have time to secure funding or alternative housing) and just cause protections so renters don't face arbitrary and unexplained nonrenewal of their leases.

We cannot unsee what the pandemic has shown so clearly: Housing saves lives. With the COVID pandemic, we have witnessed the fatal implications of structural racism, in the loss of life and the loss of livelihoods in communities of color. But we have also seen a state without the injustice and inhumanity of eviction; a Minnesota-wide commitment to housing as a human right. This is the new normal we must retain with the eviction off-ramp and build into a future where the rights and the lives of renters are protected, not just during a pandemic, but every day.

Owen Duckworth is director of policy and organizing at the Alliance and Ivory Taylor is the organizing and capacity building director at HOME Line.