Landlord Katherine Smith thought some of her problems would go away by mid-March.
A judge granted an order in February to evict a troublesome renter living in her parents’ condominium. The tenant failed to consistently pay rent for some time.
Smith and her brother worked out a deal with the tenant for him to move out of the Prior Lake unit by March. But things changed when the coronavirus pandemic worsened, and Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in March halting eviction proceedings. Smith was stuck.
Smith joins landlords across Minnesota bracing for another month with potentially no rent payments and very little recourse as some tenants fall further behind on rent. Walz extended his executive order earlier this month that prevents evictions through July 13.
The order is meant to provide relief for tenants and homeowners facing the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Minnesota’s unemployment rate reached a historic high of 9.9% in May.
But landlords like Smith say that the executive order does not make enough exceptions to remove problematic renters or take action against tenants who were slated to leave before the pandemic.
“It would’ve been nice if the governor had made a tiny exception to this whole rule,” Smith said. “I get it you hate to kick people when they’re down, but in my case and other people’s cases, if we had court orders issued before the pandemic started, those should’ve been honored.”
Under the order, evictions are allowed in cases where a tenant seriously endangers the safety of other residents or violates other laws, such as bringing in drugs, engaging in prostitution or illegal use of firearms. The governor’s office recently pointed out that it made changes to the order that allow for landlords to take tenants to court if they endanger the safety of others on the property. But officials also worried too many exceptions under the order might confuse people on what protections they have.
Assistant Attorney General Katherine Kelly, who works on housing issues in the attorney general’s office, said she fielded questions from landlords and made calls reminding them about the moratorium and how it works. But often the conversation includes acknowledging the difficult position landlords are in while also pointing out potential options for collecting unpaid rent like small claims courts.
“It has come up where they feel like their point is, ‘Where is the executive order that helps me?’ ” Kelly said. “What we talk about with these landlords is we empathize with them and most tenants we talk to are paying rent, they just need to stay longer than they would’ve if there were no pandemic.”
The governor, attorney general’s office and housing advocates are urging people to continue paying rent and mortgages or make arrangements with their landlords on a payment plan. The executive order did not give tenants or homeowners reprieve from making the monthly payments.
In Smith’s case, she moved back to Minnesota several months ago to take care of her parents in their home. They’re in their mid-90s and need everyday assistance. While working remotely for her job, she and her brother are waiting out the eviction moratorium while regularly texting the tenant about when they might receive rent payments. That money is supposed to help pay for the property tax on the condo.
While her parents are financially stable, Smith said she does not know what they would’ve done otherwise.
“What if dad didn’t have a pension and was only living off Social Security?” Smith asked. “They couldn’t survive, it couldn’t happen.”
When the moratorium ends, the officials with Minnesota judicial branches have said its bracing for “a substantial number of cases filed” when evictions start again.
Luke Grundman, a managing attorney for housing for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, a legal advocacy group, said that landlords are seeking orders to evict tenants during the moratorium if they are considered a danger to the property.
But Grundman said the cases often have nothing to do with drug dealing or other activities exempted by the eviction ban. He pointed to recent cases he represented like a man with mental health problems who pretended to have COVID and an 18-year-old who got into a fight while under the influence of alcohol.
“It seems landlords are trying to push the envelope so they can avoid the moratorium,” Grundman said. “There’s probably some people who are getting kicked out right now and shouldn’t be.”
For Smith, she is still waiting on back rent and counting the days that her tenant must leave. She’s weighing whether to take the tenant to small claims court to recover the rent they are owed and planning to fix up the unit for her son to live in. But she knows more court fees and time fighting this will be “a hassle.”
“It’s just going to cost everyone more and more money and it’s just going to backlog the courts,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a complete nightmare.”