The number of Minnesotans facing eviction has spiked in the past month as the state rolled back the renter protections that had kept many people in their homes throughout the pandemic.
The rise in landlords seeking to remove tenants has coincided with the state catching up on many backlogged requests for help through its rent and utilities payment program, giving out more than $101 million in federal aid in October.
From the program's April launch through September, it distributed only $91 million.
Housing officials said the federal dollars and Minnesota's phased-out approach to its pandemic eviction ban have helped temper what could have been an even bigger wave of people who had fallen behind on payments being forced out of their housing.
"Losing a 9-to-5 ... and you got at a family at home and you live check to check, that's a scary situation," said Jimmy Harris, a Minneapolis renter who lost his job at Walmart over the summer.
Harris applied for aid from the RentHelpMN program in September. This month, he received enough to cover three months of back rent, his December payment and water bill.
"It really opened up some doors, and just gave us the opportunity to keep moving forward instead of being evicted."
While other states, from Connecticut to Missouri, have seen evictions climb in recent months, Minnesota stands out for its sharp ascent after keeping eviction filings comparatively low throughout most of the pandemic, data from Princeton University's Eviction Lab show.
Filings are on pace to quickly reach pre-COVID levels, worrying renter advocates, although not all cases result in eviction.
On Oct. 12, Minnesota lifted most of the tenant protections that legislators and Gov. Tim Walz had approved. Only those who have a pending RentHelp application are now spared from eviction, a protection that extends to June.
It's uncertain if the federal money will last that long.
Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said the state agency is now getting more than $20 million out the door in an average week, and she doesn't expect that to slow down anytime soon. She predicted they could spend the $528 million the agency received for emergency assistance within the first quarter of 2022.
"The amount of need was great," Ho said. "The thing that I'm thinking about the most right now is: We're going to run out of this money."
Minnesota Housing recently requested an additional $20 million of Minnesota's American Rescue Plan dollars to help people who have exhausted the rent assistance benefits they qualify for under federal law.
As of early November, Minnesotans had submitted more than 58,500 applications for rent and utilities assistance.
Several staff members at nonprofits who work with renters said they are hearing more about landlords — often those frustrated with waiting months for money from the RentHelp program — who are not renewing tenants' leases, rather than trying to evict them.
Housing Justice Center Executive Director Margaret Kaplan said that could result in many families losing their housing around the holidays and trying to find a new affordable place in a tight market, potentially with a lower credit score and depleted savings from the pandemic.
Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the landlord group Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said he has not heard about many people giving up hope of getting federal dollars and opting not to renew leases.
He said their industry's patience as the state slowly got the RentHelp program running has gone unacknowledged, with some companies carrying the burden of waiting months to get massive sums.
"It's very hard to pay your bills when you are waiting for $4 million in rental assistance. It caused significant financial stress on our industry, what we went through with RentHelpMN, and finally we're starting to see some relief," Smith said.
"We were a partner in keeping people stably housed and the work that our industry does is rarely recognized."
He said the jump in eviction filings — which Minnesota court records show went from 142 the week before the Oct. 12 change to 273 during the first full week afterward — amounted to "a blip."
During the same time period before the pandemic, there were around 300 filings a week.
For those who are waiting for money from the state to arrive, renter advocates warned that a pending application alone hasn't kept some landlords from filing for eviction.
Tenants frequently don't show up for their eviction court date because they are scared or assume they are protected after they applied for assistance, said Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid housing policy attorney Joey Dobson.
But she said the court doesn't know when someone has an application in the system, and defendants need to tell the judge.
In Hennepin County on Wednesday, Dobson said she knew of six eviction cases where a family didn't show up, and there had been eight no-shows the day before. A judgment for eviction was issued immediately in those cases, she said.
Nonprofits, Hennepin County and state officials have been going through eviction filings and reaching out to people through phone calls, letters, text messages and door knocking to let them know they still need to show up in court and can get legal assistance, Dobson said.
While the state has scaled back pandemic-inspired eviction restrictions, Dobson said the effects of COVID-19 persist.
"The pandemic is not over and it's certainly not over for folks with low incomes or folks with housing instability. Whether they are feeling the physical health ramifications of it, they certainly are still feeling the economic impacts," she said.
"Seems like there is a public interest or will to act like we're moving on, but those who are struggling the most are definitely still feeling the impact of the pandemic."
Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044