Tenants behind on rent and landlords straining from the financial hardship are bracing for a new wave of uncertainty as Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday is expected to extend a temporary statewide ban on evictions.
It’s “an unprecedented set of circumstances,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center, a legal advocacy group for tenants’ rights, but “there’s going to be a point in time when things lift where we anticipate there are going to be tens of thousands of evictions filed around the state.”
Once the governor ends the moratorium, thousands of Minnesotans could be facing eviction during the coronavirus pandemic, creating new public health risks as courtrooms are packed with landlords and tenants.
Tenant advocates are urging Walz and court officials to head off such scenes by extending the moratorium, providing more legal assistance for tenants and rethinking how housing court is conducted.
“When the Governor’s eviction moratorium is lifted we expect that there will be a substantial number of cases filed,” Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea said in a statement Friday. “Courts will work to schedule hearings in a safe and efficient manner. The transition to more in-person hearings will be gradual.”
Teddy Tschann, press secretary for Walz’s office, said tenants should continue to pay their rent or mortgage if they can and landlords should stay flexible. With a growing number of virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths across Minnesota, legislative leaders expect Walz to extend the peacetime emergency and the eviction moratorium before it expires Wednesday.
“Suspending evictions was the first step to providing security for Minnesotans, and the eviction moratorium will continue for as long as the peacetime emergency is in effect,” Tschann said. “Housing assistance is the next step, securing money to ease the economic pressure on struggling Minnesotans.”
Cecil Smith, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said landlords are also dealing with the stressors that have bubbled up during the pandemic as people stay indoors.
He said landlords have mostly been trying to manage problem tenants who may be a threat to staff and other residents. He said there’s little property owners can do with the moratorium in place.
“Our owners are not asking about where the money is or how do we evict people that aren’t paying,” Smith said. “Our focus during this crisis is how do we maintain our properties so they’re well managed for the safety and livability of the residents.”
In recent years, more than 17,000 evictions have been filed in housing courts across Minnesota. Unpaid rent is a leading reason for an eviction filing, with low-income households and people of color disproportionately represented, according to housing experts.
Walz issued an executive order in late March stopping evictions for renters and homeowners facing foreclosure during the state’s peacetime emergency for coronavirus.
Though it didn’t eliminate the obligation to make rent or mortgage payments, the order kept thousands of Minnesotans from losing their housing as the pandemic unfolded and people were urged to practice social distancing and stay at home. Widespread job loss and cut wages amid the pandemic have made it difficult for households to pay rent, even as city, county, state and federal officials rush to create assistance programs.
If evictions resume next week, legal advocacy groups said the typical mass schedulings that result in hundreds of people milling around courthouses is a public health disaster waiting to happen in the COVID-19 era.
In her statement, Gildea said “many precautions will be taken to ensure the environment is safe for staff, judges, litigants, attorneys and the public” once the courts resume fully again.
The court is planning to limit housing court calendars to no more than 20 cases and try to do as many proceedings as possible using video conference platforms like Zoom, according to Luke Grundman, a managing attorney for housing with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which represents about 600 families per year in housing court. The court is also going to limit courtrooms to 10 cases.
But Grundman said that’s still risking too many people being in the courthouse, especially since landlords and tenants might bring others with them. Low-income clients facing eviction don’t always have internet or a smartphone to use remote apps, he said.
“So they’re going to bring all of their kids and loved ones, that’s not 40 people,” Grundman said. “That’s well more than 40 people, on the same floor, using the same bathrooms. They don’t have masks for people. It’s just frustrating.”
He said they are working with the courts to find other solutions that can limit the number of people in close contact and more quickly connect people with emergency financial assistance.
Tenants are reporting that they have been threatened with eviction if they don’t pay rent or move out right away, according to Kaplan. Hers and other tenant advocacy groups have been writing letters to the courts and trying to figure out how to offer legal services to the increased number of people who will likely need it when the eviction moratorium ends. She fears people having their housing records tainted post-pandemic because they could not pay rent or work or worse, having an eviction wrongly filed on them.
“It raises significant questions about access to justice and is it fair when someone is rushed through a system and not provided the assistance they need to mount a defense against eviction,” Kaplan said.
But Kaplan said she heard landlords have been working with tenants to find solutions if they cannot make rent.
Smith, with the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, the statewide organization for landlords, said they have urged members to be understanding and point tenants toward financial and employment assistance.
The CARES Act, the federal law passed to deal with the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic, provides another protection against eviction, but only if tenants know that and can make their case in court. Under the law, landlords cannot evict people living in homes backed by a federal mortgage until July 24. The law also says residents cannot be required to vacate until at least a month after the moratorium ends.