The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has gone to court to evict tenants more than 1,500 times in the past five years, making the county’s largest landlord also its biggest user of housing court, according to data compiled by Hennepin County.

The housing authority oversees more than 6,000 units across Minneapolis, providing homes for low-income residents who are often people with disabilities, older adults or people of color.

While emphasizing that it takes action only against a small number of its tenants, the housing authority is rethinking its approach to evictions amid a larger conversation in the city and across Minnesota over the fairness of the process and the long-term damage an eviction filing has for a prospective renter.

Public housing residents pay up to 30% of their income toward rent. But even with lower rent payments, housing authority officials and tenant advocates have found residents often fall behind due to job loss, reduced work hours or a health emergency.

The agency does not dispute the county’s data, but the numbers do not consider how officials work with residents until “practically at the very last minute to make sure that they stay housed,” said Tracey Scott, interim executive director for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “It doesn’t show the whole story about how we do workouts and how we do everything we can to support our residents in keeping their housing.”

Between 2014 and 2018, the agency obtained 462 eviction judgments against tenants and 1,070 that ended with a noneviction judgment, according to a Hennepin County website that tracks these court actions. The county data show the second-largest eviction filer is Huntington Place Apartments, a property in Brooklyn Park that has 834 units.

A noneviction judgment means a landlord may not have shown up for a hearing, the landlord and resident came to an agreement on paying the back rent, or a tenant may have successfully fought off eviction after withholding rent because of maintenance issues.

Tarnishing tenants’ history

Part of the problem with evictions is how long they stay on tenants’ records and how often landlords can use that against them, said Ellen Sahli, president of the Family Housing Fund, an organization focused on housing access and affordability in the Twin Cities.

While state law allows residents to pursue eviction expungements, tenant advocates say that process can be costly and time-consuming for low-income households, forcing them to forgo it altogether. Sahli said that’s why it’s important for landlords and tenants in financial distress to know in advance that assistance exists and agencies are there to make sure that help is readily available.

“Our goal is to eliminate eviction filings, which means we have to have the services and support in place before so that the family gets the kind of help they need to avert the filing completely,” Sahli said.

Luke Grundman, a managing attorney for housing issues at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said that his public-housing clients are often confused by the housing agency’s letters or unclear about where to go for help. The organization talked to the housing authority about changing the wording of the letters, sending texts and reaching out to emergency contacts to communicate with residents.

“Many times people who are in housing court facing a [Minneapolis Housing Authority] eviction are genuinely surprised,” Grundman said. “They didn’t even realize it was happening. They didn’t realize they were at the stage where they could be homeless in a matter of days.”

The housing authority says residents are given plenty of notice before action is taken. It does not file an eviction against residents until the second month after they’re late and even then always offers a settlement during the court appearance. Residents are sent two letters before an eviction is filed. While residents may reach a settlement with the agency, they’ll also be responsible for paying back the $297 eviction filing fee. The agency allows residents to pay the fee over three months.

Residents’ monthly statements include numbers to call for rent assistance and information about talking to property managers about hardships, said Mary McGovern, a tenant at the Elliot Twins apartments and president of the Minneapolis High Rise Representative Council, which advocates for the 5,000-plus tenants living in the housing authority’s high-rise apartments.

“It’s not like 1, 2, 3 and you’re out the door; they don’t work that way,” McGovern said.

She said tenants “would be lost” without the social workers from Volunteers of America who help residents with family problems, money issues, food assistance, clothing and paying their utilities.

“A lot of people struggle to afford housing and they manage to pay the rent, but we’re talking about incomes that are so low … you have to wonder whether they can even afford that rent,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president of research for the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Looking for solutions

The housing authority’s Scott said the agency formed an internal task force on eviction preventions to find solutions. The agency realized that tenants receiving benefits checks were not always getting them at the beginning or end of the month, often causing them to be late on rent.

In addition, the agency worked with the Hennepin County emergency-assistance fund so that tenants could apply for help using their initial notice of late rent instead of having to wait for an eviction notice for their application.

The housing authority also conducted a survey this spring of 150 residents. It found that 75% said they had a late rent payment, with the top reasons including the due date, medical problems, family problems, lack of income and that they forgot. The survey also found that less than half of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they “know where to get help with rent.”

“I think we’re getting better at working through the needs of residents, working with policy issues, working with partners at the county to facilitate residents keeping their housing,” Scott said. “We’re on that path and we’ll continue to refine it as best as we can.”