A lawyer for two property owners asked a federal judge Monday to end Gov. Tim Walz's nine-month moratorium on evictions.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel heard arguments by telephone in a case filed in September that seeks to end the eviction moratorium so landlords can remove nonpaying or unruly tenants through housing courts. State officials argue that doing so could hamper efforts to curb COVID-19 and keep people housed.
Michael Kemp, an attorney with Hansen Dordell, represents the two Twin Cities property owners, Heights Apartments and Walnut Trails, who filed for the injunction to stop the moratorium. Kemp said that the executive order's "temporary moratorium has been an indefinite moratorium" that does not pass "constitutional muster."
"We have no idea when the end is in sight. My clients and other property owners across the state have no ability to plan about when they're going to start receiving rents again," Kemp said. "They have no idea how long they may have to put up with nuisance or in fact illegal conduct from their tenants, so the denial here is a fundamental right ... the right to the only remedy that is available for request for possession of the property."
Kemp said that no one is denying the severity of the pandemic but pointed out that there are already protections for tenants in place, such as the CDC's eviction moratorium.
The hearing comes as Minnesota tenants and landlords weather a ninth month of tensions over unpaid rent, property damage and other issues amid ongoing job loss and uncertainty about how soon people will be able to financially recover from the pandemic.
Since March, Walz has renewed the stop on evictions each month alongside the state's peacetime emergency order, citing the dangers of people not being able to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and fears of overcrowding in homeless shelters.
Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, state lawmakers, tenant advocacy groups and landlords have reminded people for months that the executive order does not relieve them from paying their rent or mortgages. But landlords are growing increasingly desperate as their mortgage payments, property taxes and needed repairs pile up, with no funding relief from federal or state government.
Some evictions have continued during the moratorium, generally for extreme cases: property damage, arson, drugs and other illegal activities.
Last week, two organizations, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Housing Justice Center, filed an amicus brief arguing that an end to Minnesota's eviction moratorium would disproportionately affect people of color and the disabled community and may cause spikes in COVID-19 among marginalized people who are already bearing the brunt of deaths during the pandemic.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Goodwin argued that Brasel should not stop the moratorium, pointing out that it simply delays when property owners can start filing evictions again and that landlords do have some recourse under the executive order to remove tenants.
Goodwin said that as COVID-19 cases rise in the state, hospitals are already nearing capacity. Forcing tenants out of stable housing and into shelters could cause those numbers to surge further, he said.
"The court needs to look at the public health consequences of enjoining these executive orders in terms of the effects on tenants was well as the medical capacity in Minnesota," Goodwin said. "We simply suggest that those harms weigh heavily in the defendants' favor."
The CDC's eviction moratorium is slated to expire Dec. 31, but tenant rights advocates have argued it's a backstop in case Walz decides to not extend the state's executive order on evictions.
Brasel did not provide a ruling by the end of the hearing. The state's peacetime emergency order and eviction moratorium is in effect until Dec. 14.