A Hennepin County court referee listened for hours Wednesday as renter after renter agreed to pay the hundreds or thousands of dollars they owe, or leave their homes.

It was just another hectic day in housing court, where the number of eviction cases has climbed — a trend some fear is about to get worse.

More than two years after DFL Gov. Tim Walz halted evictions to prevent homelessness amid surging COVID-19 cases and the resulting economic downturn, the state has phased out its final pandemic-era renter protection. The last remaining cushion allowed renters who would otherwise have been evicted for failing to pay rent to keep their housing as long as they had a pending application for emergency rental assistance. As of Wednesday, evictions in those cases could resume.

"The shelter need is going to just skyrocket this month, as well as homelessness," predicted attorney Rachael Sterling, COVID-19 eviction response coordinator for the tenant advocacy organization HOME Line. "These protections have been critical in keeping people housed. And those protections are just gone. And the safety net that we had in place for almost two years is just ripped out from underneath people."

Evictions in Minnesota have spiked in recent months as renter protections and financial assistance have run out. Landlords filed for nearly 1,800 evictions in May — about 500 more than in May 2019, before the pandemic.

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which advocates for landlords, said renters and property managers have faced serious public safety and financial challenges over the past couple years. The group decried the state's "inept" distribution of federal rent assistance as well as Walz's eviction moratorium, which legislators replaced last summer with a timeline to slowly end housing protections.

"As we protested during the moratorium, and now supported by court decisions, the state overreached and politicized the pandemic to earn points with far-left activists," association members said in a statement, referring to a lawsuit over the constitutionality of Walz's eviction pause. "In spite of all this adversity, a resilient rental housing market is returning to normal, especially as people have gone back to work and job opportunities abound."

Minnesota is in a different economic situation than it was in early in the pandemic, when there were mass layoffs and families struggled to juggle jobs and caring for their children who were learning from home. Minnesota's unemployment rate dropped to 2.2% in April, the lowest level since the state began tracking the metric 46 years ago.

However, the state has recovered about 79% of the jobs lost when COVID-19 first hit, far less than the nation as a whole.

The phase-out of the final tenant protection comes as the state housing agency, Minnesota Housing, has distributed almost all of the $450 million in federal funds designated for rent and utility assistance. A spokesperson for the agency said it has finished processing "between 99% and 100%" of submitted applications. The state and some local and tribal governments got a total of about $673 million to help renters during the pandemic.

Walz's decision to halt evictions and the Legislature's continuation of protections as federal aid dollars were sent has stabilized tens of thousands of families, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said in a statement Wednesday.

So far this year the Legislature has failed to pass a housing spending package — one of many things lawmakers were unable to agree on before the end of the regular session in May. House Democrats supported a housing bill that would have spent $230 million next year on a variety of areas, including rent assistance and preserving and adding affordable housing. Senate Republicans proposed $50 million focused on homeownership.

"The governor requested a historic amount of housing resources to address the wide range of housing issues that are negatively impacting families and our economy," Ho said. "I'm very disappointed that nothing passed during session. I hope a special session comes together because we need more housing. Without significant and sustained investments in the full continuum of housing by the state Legislature, the situation will only get worse."

Sterling, of HOME Line, predicted that June "is going to get messy."

A couple of Minnesota district courts did not dismiss cases where the renter was protected under the eviction moratorium, but instead paused them until June 1, she said. Eviction filings will likely ramp up in the second or third week of the month as landlords see that tenants are not paying, Sterling said. And she noted there are also informal evictions taking place, where people are asked to leave a property without going through the court process.

The nonprofit is already seeing its highest-ever call numbers, with staff getting about 200 calls a day in May from people seeking help, she said.

"I don't want to be like, 'This is absolutely hopeless,'" Sterling said. "But it's bad. It's going to be bad. And no one is doing anything about it that can do things about it."

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.