Kelvin Cannon had a job as a cook when the state of Minnesota ordered restaurants closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
That was March.
Since then, Cannon has not been able to find another job and does not qualify for unemployment because he was within the probationary employment period at the restaurant. The 28-year-old Minneapolis man cannot pay his rent and struggles to meet many other living expenses.
One reason he still has a roof over his head is Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order declaring a peacetime emergency, which forbids evictions.
But when that ends — which could be as early as Friday — and protections built into a federal COVID-19 response law expire in July, Cannon and thousands of Minnesotans like him could be served, resulting in an explosion of delayed evictions and foreclosures, consumer advocates said.
Added to that, other forms of debt collection delayed by suspended court hearings will start again. As people max out credit cards to pay bills due, more debt could pile up.
Minnesota averages 13,000 to 15,000 eviction filings a year, said Eric Hauge, who helps run Home Line, a nonprofit legal hotline that advises Minnesota renters. “There could be that many filed in the first few weeks after the emergency order lifts,” he said.
Hauge said callers normally ask how to get landlords to make repairs. Since the pandemic and accompanying shutdowns drove the state’s economy into a downward spiral, renters have shifted their questions.
Now they want to know about “financial assistance, threats of lockouts and lease nonrenewals,” he said.
In May, the bill-paying firm Doxo issued a report on the impact of COVID-19. The company — which counts Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as a partner — found that roughly 7 in 10 households do not have enough savings to last four months, and one in three could last only one month without running short of cash.
One in three households were either already paying bills late or would have to in the next month.
Hauge said Home Line has heard of people who pay their rent first but cannot pay other bills. He has also heard of people paying rent with credit cards.
In Minneapolis, Cannon is tapped out and out of options.
He qualified for a stimulus payment under the federal pandemic response law, but child support enforcement officials seized the check because Cannon, who said he paid support when he had a job, owed money.
Cannon said he was within the 90-day probationary period when he lost his job as a cook at an Indian restaurant. He said state officials told him his probationary status disqualified him from receiving unemployment payments.
“I look for jobs online,” said Cannon, who is now three months behind on his rent. “I’ve had a couple of interviews, but no callbacks. I’ve been applying for warehouse jobs, cooking jobs, customer-service jobs. I don’t have a plan for paying my bills because I can’t work and I can’t get help.”
Now, he added, he worries the damage done by riots after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody will further impede his search.
Jerry Essary, 52, is a felon and self-described “bad boy gone good.” He quit a temporary construction job in January in Wisconsin and moved back full time to Sauk Centre because he became a full-time single parent to his 9-year-old son, Colton. Then, the pandemic hit and the job market dried up.
A former construction boss who planned to hire him ran out of money and “got scared of COVID-19,” Essary said. “Everybody I talked with was either laying off people or not hiring.”
He found work in a meatpacking plant that promptly experienced an outbreak of coronavirus after his hiring. Since then, all he has found is a weeklong job unloading trucks.
Because he quit his construction job for personal reasons, Essary said the state told him he didn’t qualify for unemployment. His stimulus check went for back child support for another child.
Since March, Essary said, he has not paid rent on the house where he has lived for five and a half years. The monthly rent is $750. He and his son are trying to live on $625 a month in welfare payments.
“I don’t know how different it would be without the pandemic,” he said. “I was already behind. But once the pandemic hit, I was screwed.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said landlords have been largely compliant with the noneviction order and that there have been relatively few utility cutoffs during the pandemic. But Ellison, like many, fears an explosion of people displaced from housing, ruined credit and court-ordered judgments in the pandemic’s wake.
The state needs provisions to help with COVID-driven rent problems, bankruptcy and credit scores, he said.
The consumer-advocacy community is gearing up for a major battle over unpaid bills. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid recently conducted a webinar for lawyers about renters’ rights.
About 150 lawyers participated in the webinar, said Jennifer Singleton, program manager for legal services. “Usually, those draw 30 to 40 lawyers,” she said.
Home buyers who miss mortgage payments because of the pandemic are supposed to be able to request loan extensions to make up for delinquencies if they have federally backed loans, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
People with conventional loans do not receive that protection, although in Minnesota, Walz requested that mortgage holders delay foreclosures during the emergency.
Statistics gathered by the advocacy group Minnesota Homeownership Center show that the number of preforeclosure filings actually decreased in the first quarter of 2020 to 4,200 from 4,800 in the last quarter of 2019. Center officials warn that the impact of the pandemic on mortgage payments is unlikely to show up until this summer or fall because foreclosures generally lag missed payments by several months, plus the first quarter had only a fraction of the time under stay-home orders.
The center is “gearing up” for an explosion, said director Julie Gugin.
However, the center’s ultimate explanation to those in arrears on mortgages will likely be the same that delinquent renters and others behind on bills will get:
At some point, most people and companies that lend money, lease property or offer credit have a legal right to get paid back.
“Part of our advising process is to figure out what consumers want,” Gugin said. “If you want to stay in your home, your income has to support the mortgage payments. If you have to leave, you try to negotiate a soft landing. Lower payments may be viable. Increased income may be viable. But could some people lose homes? Yes.”
Debt-collection cases in Minnesota have not yet become a source of contention, said Legal Aid’s Singleton. In fact, Walz issued a specific executive order banning creditors from garnishing pandemic response stimulus checks because the money was supposed to go for future support, not past debt.
But the nation’s doubling of debt-collection cases, documented recently by the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggests a flood of backed-up filings because of the pandemic. The lack of debt-collection complaints to Legal Aid, said Singleton, is likely a function of the judicial system’s decision to delay hearing court cases, not a reduction in those cases.
Ron Elwood, a supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, thinks debt cases brought to court by lawyers for creditors against absent or unrepresented borrowers “is a monster that needs to be tamed.” Instead, it will likely get worse.
“The pandemic,” said Elwood, “is exacerbating what is already happening.”