Beginning on September 12, Minnesota renters who are behind on rent but ineligible for COVID-19 emergency rental assistance could face possible eviction as the state’s pandemic-era protections for tenants phase-out. Currently, landlords can decline to renew a lease for a renter who owes payments but does not qualify for rental assistance, although they cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Attorneys with the Minnesota Anti-Eviction Project place the “very conservative” statewide estimate at 13,330 evictions for the first month when nonpayment of rent evictions resume—more than 10 times the pre-pandemic monthly number.
While most “off-ramp” protections for renters will not end until October 12, at which point landlords will be able to file evictions for any legal reason unless a tenant has a pending COVID-19 emergency rental assistance application, the urgent need for housing security amid impending uncertainty has already intensified.
Rachael Sterling, the COVID-19 eviction response coordinator and housing attorney at HomeLine, a nonprofit Minnesota tenant advocacy organization, told the MSR that calls from renters seeking assistance and legal counsel have spiked.
“We are getting an increased number of calls,” Sterling said. “We do see quite a few calls regarding landlord notices to vacate… Landlords are telling them that they need to go.”
News of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down President Joe Biden’s attempt to extend the eviction moratorium has dominated the national discourse surrounding the eviction crisis recently. Sterling said Minnesota’s state-wide policies have offered greater protection for renters throughout the pandemic and superseded narrower protections offered by the federal-level moratorium.
“The CDC moratorium has never actually had much impact on Minnesota because, essentially, since March of 2020 we have had stronger protections in place than what the CDC moratorium had to offer,” Sterling said.
In March of 2020, when the pandemic first hit, Gov. Tim Walz ordered an eviction ban to limit the spread of the virus by enabling renters to remain housed. The Minnesota Volunteer Lawyers Network estimated in July that the eviction ban prevented an additional 22,200 COVID-19 infections and 680 deaths. Now, even as the Delta Variant rages and case rates in Minnesota and states across the country rise, the protections credited with saving the lives of hundreds of Minnesotans are growing progressively weaker.
The Minnesota Eviction Moratorium Phase-Out is a temporary law that replaced Walz’s order on June 30. Over a 105-day period it progressively revokes the protections it contained. “What’s keeping a lot of tenants in place right now are the phase-out protections,” Sterling said.
Weekly eviction filings tripled between when the temporary law went into effect and August 5, although they have not yet approached pre-pandemic levels because of protections that remain in place. Since the phase-out began, tenants can now be evicted for material lease violations, allowing illegal activity on the premises, or refusing to pay rent while also refusing to apply for assistance.
Although the moratorium has offered a measure of security to renters, landlords in Minnesota have fought the restrictions on evictions. The Minnesota Multi Housing Association brought a lawsuit against Walz in mid-June, alleging the ban on evictions was unconstitutional.
“It’s regrettable and unfortunate but it’s the only option we felt we had,” said Cecil Smith, CEO of the Association, at a news conference when the lawsuit was announced. “It’s time for the governor to end his eviction moratorium and for us to get back to normal order.”
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association represents landlords who own about half of the state’s rental units. The lawsuit claimed Minnesota has done a poor job of doling out $672 million intended for rental assistance.
“Minnesota is well behind other states in beginning to distribute funds,” the lawsuit said. “Moreover, it is unlikely that—even with increased public awareness of the program—that the funds will get out to landlords faster.”
Although the case was dropped after Walz signed off on the phase-out, concerns remain over the speed at which the rental assistance funds are being distributed. The process has been slowed because the State housing agency had to establish a new benefits program and navigate tedious federal application requirements.
By early August, just $28.8 million of the $196 million requested had been paid out to renters, the Minnesota Reformer reported last month.
Meanwhile, about 58,000 Minnesota households owe a collective $193 million in rent, Policy Link found, based on late-July and early-August data. More than 65% of the households behind on rent are families or individuals of color, while 84% are low-income and over half are households with children.
The state of the pandemic has evolved rapidly since June 30, when the phase-out first went into effect. At that time, the seven-day average for new cases in Minnesota was 87. As of September 3, the figure stood at 1,604.
With the most significant protections set to weaken over the next several weeks, Sterling advises those facing eviction to go ahead and apply for emergency assistance, as a pending application will offer protection in the coming months. Tenants who have pending applications for emergency rental assistance will remain protected until June 1, 2022. Showing up to an initial eviction hearing is also imperative to avoid a potential default judgement in the landlord’s favor.
Tenants across the country are expressing fear and anxiety about becoming homeless. Recent census data showed that 7,397 Minnesota residents feared they’d be evicted within two months.
Niara Savage is a contributor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.