Since last spring, Ramsey County District Judge Thomas Gilligan Jr. has walked out of his home every morning, court robe in hand, to start work at his makeshift courtroom: an unfinished room above his garage.
Logging in to Zoom, the videoconferencing site, Gilligan has been conducting proceedings in civil cases such as medical malpractice, employment discrimination and emergency evictions. Sometimes he’s had to text his adult children temporarily living in his home to “please get off the internet” so his Zoom connection can stabilize.
He still occasionally goes to the courthouse in St. Paul. But presiding over landlord-tenant disputes from his garage office is part of the new normal that Gilligan and other court officials are embracing as they prepare for eviction proceedings to start again.
“We’re attempting to strike the right balance between the interest of the tenant and the interest of landlords. It’s the same type of thing that keeps me up ordinarily because finding that balance is challenging,” Gilligan said. “What I am really interested in having the Second Judicial District do, is to do the best we can do to return back to our pre-COVID pandemic operations.”
Minnesota judicial officials have said they’re bracing for “a substantial number of cases filed” statewide when Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order blocking evictions ends. Housing experts fear a looming crisis including unpaid rents, evictions, increased homelessness and landlords being unable to pay their mortgage — causing communities to potentially lose affordable housing units.
The governor has extended the order several times since March, with the latest extension slated to go through Sept. 11. The federal government’s surprise order last week prohibited evictions nationwide for nonpayment of rent through Dec. 31, for the purpose of controlling the spread of COVID-19.
It’s a more narrow category than what’s covered by Walz’s order, and court officials say they have to start preparing for the surge of eviction cases that will inevitably follow the expirations of the bans.
Statewide, there have been 121 cases leading to an eviction judgment since the eviction moratorium began, according to the Minnesota judicial branch.
Continuation of the eviction moratorium is now more important than ever as children settle into the new school year with remote learning from home, said Muria Kruger, housing program manager for the Volunteer Lawyers Network, which provides attorneys for low-income people.
She said families will need that stability as well as access to rent assistance. She pointed out that since most eviction filings stem from nonpayment of rent, she said there’s been work behind the scenes to make sure emergency financial assistance services are readily available. While “hopefully it won’t be a land rush or tsunami” of filings, Kruger said advocates still worry each month.
“Every 30 days we need to all be prepared for what could be the start of evictions again, which will be a large influx of cases,” Kruger said. “It’s painful for the courts, it’s painful for service providers, it’s painful for tenants, too, so every 30 days they’re wondering, are evictions going to start again?”
Gilligan said an eviction wave “could happen within the state,” but he’s unclear if it will given the amount of emergency funding available from local government and nonprofit organizations.
Minnesota district courts have spent the last several months coordinating meetings with judges, attorneys and local social service providers to brainstorm how to run housing court with social distancing.
In Hennepin County, with the busiest housing court in the state, court referees will be working on four cases per hour, slowing down the process and allowing more time for each case and fewer people in the courtroom. Multiple district courts are planning to allow tenants to ask for a continuance of their nonpayment cases so that they have as long as a week or a month to check their eligibility for rent assistance services.
In Ramsey County, court administrators have set up social distance markers around the courthouse, have secured four iPads with Zoom on them for people to use in conference rooms and are working with libraries and community organizations to try to set up remote access points outside of the courthouse.
Court administrators in Ramsey County have also been talking about cleanup procedures when in-person hearings are conducted, even down to asking people to not use their own wipes on the courthouse’s historic wood.
Gilligan said he was initially skeptical about remote technology but he’s been pleasantly surprised at how well it’s been working. He said he’s hoping using Zoom for proceedings and connecting people to access points will prevent typical roadblocks tenants face with eviction court, such as transportation, finding child care and having to take time from work.
He said he’s hoping coordinating efforts will help tenants connect with financial assistance in advance of the hearing. Some hearings he’s overseen have included troubleshooting because someone had a poor internet connection or the person could not get into the virtual Zoom room.
“A lot of the population that we serve may not have access to a laptop with a camera or reliable internet service or be in a private space where they could have a Zoom breakout conversation with an attorney, so those are going to present some challenges to us,” Gilligan said. “Obviously our first priority is safety of everyone who is participating in court proceedings and if we can have them safely and effectively remotely we’re interested in doing that.”
Part of the concern in the weeks and months ahead for Gilligan is what the backlog of eviction cases might look like once the moratorium ends. While the courts were taking conventional eviction filings at one point during the moratorium, they weren’t conducting hearings, meaning since then tenants may have moved out, they may have received emergency funding that paid off rent or issues around property damage and other tenant-landlord issues.
“We don’t know how many of them are still active cases,” Gilligan said.
Gilligan has been conducting emergency housing-related hearings in which landlords argue they have a right to evict a tenant during the moratorium and tenants argue they should be able to stay put.
For now, Gilligan said while he would still prefer to conduct hearings in person, he’s adamant about keeping people safe amid social distancing guidelines and the court being able to “provide a just and fair and quality experience for litigants” no matter what technology has to be used.
“I want to make sure that people have access to justice and there may be more than one way to do that, and one of those ways may be by doing it remotely,” he said.