John Nelson was unimpressed when he first toured the spooky century-old building south of downtown Minneapolis. Twenty years later, the one-bedroom apartment with high ceilings and elegant woodwork has become his "castle."

He tends flowers in his front yard. He knows his neighbors. And he hasn't been able to pay rent for more than a year.

Most Minnesotans who lost their income during the pandemic have not lost their homes, as Gov. Tim Walz froze evictions and foreclosures. Now legislators are debating how to end that moratorium. Tenants like Nelson, uncertain about what help is on the horizon, are bracing for the worst.

"If they go through with the evictions, there's going to be thousands and thousands of people who have nowhere else to go," said Nelson, who is trying to get disability and unemployment benefits. "Otherwise, I'm just going to have to leave and fend for myself. And at 61 years old, with my health problems, I ain't going to last out there long."

Nelson is one of up to 100,000 households who state housing officials estimate are behind on rent and owe a combined $200 million. They are banking on the release of nearly $400 million in emergency federal housing aid — and potentially $200 million more in the relief bill President Joe Biden just signed into law — to prevent a wave of homelessness when the eviction moratorium ends.

The moratorium is tied to Walz's ongoing state of peacetime emergency, the timing of which depends on COVID-19 testing and the vaccine rollout. It won't end in the next month or two, Walz's spokesman said.

Legislative planning for the end of the eviction halt started in earnest last week, and some lawmakers also want to change the eviction process long-term. Democrats, who control the House, proposed a slow phaseout of the moratorium. Landlords could not evict someone because they failed to pay rent for a year after the peacetime emergency ends, as long as they can collect the amount owed through an assistance program. Landlords would have to give a 60-day written notice during that year before filing an eviction.

In the GOP-led Senate, Housing Committee Chairman Rich Draheim wants to enact his version of the moratorium "off ramp" by April 1. Landlords could start evicting people in specific circumstances 45 days later. Evictions for those with outstanding rent who don't qualify for assistance could start after 60 days.

"It would give us just a little more freedom to get rid of the bad apples," Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said. He noted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has an eviction ban that could be extended past March 31. It protects people who can't afford rent and have completed certain paperwork.

Legislators, landlords and tenants do agree on one point: Restarting evictions must be tied to the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal help.

The $1.9 trillion federal relief package signed into law last week includes $27.4 billion of rental assistance and $10 billion in mortgage help. The state's housing agency estimated Minnesota could get $200 million, but the U.S. Treasury will release the final number. It follows two other rounds of significant federal housing support.

Minnesota started distributing $100 million last summer to people struggling with rent, mortgage and utility bills. Local groups administering the grants stopped taking applications in early December, but they are still dispersing money after getting a flood of requests the week of the deadline. Despite the high needs, state officials don't expect to use the full $100 million. They said they had a short timeline to set up the nation's largest per capita housing aid program and there were some delays and confusion about the process.

"The challenges we had with deployment of rental assistance, that needs to be addressed," said Cecil Smith, president of the landlord group Minnesota Multi Housing Association. He is a property owner and is waiting on assistance checks his tenants hoped to get in December.

Minnesota state and local governments got another $375 million to help people with rent in the December federal relief package, and $22 million went to tribes. The state has yet to give out the money. Officials plan to start providing aid by the end of March and are creating a system that allows people to track applications, Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said.

"Minnesotans are hurting and we are going to do our damnedest to get this assistance into their hands," Ho said.

Minnesota Housing says an estimated 150,000 renters have little or no confidence they can afford their next payment, and the agency predicts $135 million could be needed each month to help them.

Lovetee Polahn is among them. The 41-year-old single mom lost her job as a certified nursing assistant in April and fell behind on rent at the Brooklyn Center apartment complex where she lives with four of her kids.

"If the COVID program was not there a lot of folks would have been homeless, including me," Polahn said. After she lost her job, she started school to become a nurse, hoping to give her family a better life. She has taken out loans to pay for the classes and can't afford rent. If the moratorium ends and she doesn't qualify for additional aid, Polahn said she will have to give up her goal.

When evictions resume, she said, landlords should give tenants repeated warnings before filing a lawsuit to remove them.

As lawmakers debate how to end the moratorium, Democrats are also pushing to re-examine an eviction process some describe as antiquated and inhumane.

Before the pandemic, about 50 families, mostly people of color without lawyers, would arrive at Hennepin County court three days a week and each have just a few minutes with a judge, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid attorney Luke Grundman said at a recent Citizens League event.

"It felt like an eviction mill," he said. "And the human misery in the hallway outside that courtroom is indescribable."

Minnesota is one of seven states that don't require landlords to provide notice before filing an eviction lawsuit, he said. A 2019 Las Vegas Review-Journal analysis showed the state has one of the shortest timelines, just nine days, from when an eviction lawsuit is filed to when a tenant can be kicked out for failing to pay rent. House Democrats want to address those issues and others. Minnesota Multi Housing Association, the landlord group, opposes the bills and they have gained little traction in the Senate.

"I'm all open to looking at rental laws and the process and compare us to other states," Draheim said. "But I think first things first, we need to get people the help they need."

Evictions are still occurring in some situations, such as a tenant seriously endangering others' safety. But the numbers have fallen dramatically. Landlords submitted 1,257 eviction filings between March 24, 2020, when evictions were paused, and the end of this February, state data show. About 15,000 eviction filings were submitted during a similar time frame the year before. Not every filing ends in eviction, but people have lost their housing in at least 603 cases during the moratorium.

Attorneys expect a backlog of eviction cases when the moratorium lifts.

"Hopefully there's going to be a plan," said Nelson, the Minneapolis renter who worries he and others will end up on the streets. "What that plan is, I don't know, and can't even fathom. But there's got to be a plan in place, otherwise there's going to be chaos."

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044