Who can cancel evictions amid the COVID-19 outbreak?

By: - March 20, 2020 12:11 pm

Deputies in Virginia from the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department process an eviction on July 12, 2018. The tenants had already departed and the deputies, after checking the unit to make sure it’s empty, watch as the owner changes the unit’s locks. Courtesy of Virginia Mercury.

Cities and states across the country, including Minnesota, have temporarily halted evictions as health officials urge people to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the short term, judges in Minnesota have stopped hearing new eviction cases, except for those involving domestic abuse or personal safety. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued a statewide order that went into effect March 16 that suspended all cases that weren’t deemed a high priority for 14 days.

But as Gov. Tim Walz warns Minnesotans to prepare for “a winter, not a blizzard” of COVID-19 effects, state and local leaders are trying to figure out how to prevent a longer term housing calamity as unemployment soars. More than 95,000 Minnesotans applied for unemployment insurance over the past week, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Retail and food service, which have been hardest-hit by efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, are also the largest private employers of Americans. More than 235,000 Minnesotans work in these two types of jobs alone — few of which pay a living wage, let alone enough to save for what could be months of unemployment.

Photo courtesy of Anaïs Dilger.

Anaïs Dilger is a barista and cake decorator for the ice cream shop Sebastian Joe’s in Minneapolis. Since restaurants and coffee shops were forced to close by executive order, Dilger has gotten a little more work disinfecting the shop. After that, they and their coworkers will be out of work.

“I’m not spending a single dollar right now,” Dilger said. “I’m good for April 1. I might be okay for May 1. Beyond that, I’m completely fucked.”

Dilger, who uses the pronoun they, cashed out their sick time and applied for unemployment. Sebastian Joe’s told workers they’ll be rehired as soon as the shop is allowed to reopen, but no one knows when that will be.

Dilger shares an apartment with their fiance in Stevens Square, which is owned by a large company. They say they plan to reach out to find out how the company plans to respond if many of its renters find themselves out of work.

While Minnesota judges aren’t currently issuing “writ of recoveries,” which direct police to forcibly evict someone, landlords are still filing evictions against their tenants. Those cases will start working their way through the courts in a little over a week.

Statewide, there were 259 eviction cases filed between March 13 and March 19 (which is lower than the weekly average during 2019.)

A longer housing term fix is intertwined with efforts to contain the disease. A wave of evictions could increase homelessness. People experiencing homelessness — be it at shelters already operating at capacity or staying with friends or family — are at greater risk of getting sick and spreading the virus.

On Friday, the renter advocacy law firm Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid renewed their call for the state’s Supreme Court to suspend housing court for a longer period of time, but it’s unclear if Chief Justice Gildea will. A spokeswoman for the courts said she could not speculate on what judicial officers may do.

Police departments could decide not to enforce a court-ordered eviction. Miami-Dade police have stopped assisting with evictions while the city is under a state of emergency.

In Minnesota, county sheriffs enforce eviction orders. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has urged the Hennepin County sheriff’s department to stop assisting with eviction orders in Minneapolis.

“Many families and individuals will be struggling to make ends meet throughout and beyond this public health crisis,” Frey wrote in a letter to Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson. “We must be prepared to act in decisive and innovative ways.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also asked Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher to suspend all evictions though March 30.

Sheriffs are unlikely to ignore a judge’s order, however.

“State law requires us to execute the orders of the court, often with a specific time frame in which the order must be executed,” Jeremy Zoss, a spokesperson for Hutchinson, wrote in an email. “Given those restrictions, Sheriff Hutchinson has been working closely with court leadership, state, county, and city officials and others on this issue. We are looking forward to finding solutions and confident that we can successfully resolve (writs of recovery) still in the pipeline.”

Landlords could choose not to evict their tenants. Owners of more than 155,000 units in New York agreed to suspend evictions for the next 90 days because of the coronavirus. But for many landlords — especially those who only own a few units — missing rent means missing their monthly mortgage, which could put them at risk of foreclosure.

Photo courtesy of Janne Flisrand.

Janne Flisrand* is the owner and resident of a fourplex in the Lowry Hill neighborhood of Minneapolis. She works as a housing policy consultant and uses her rental income to pay the mortgage. She sent an email to her tenants earlier this week saying they can work something out if they’re out of work.

“I want to make sure to take care of them,” Flisrand said. “I absolutely do not want anyone to be concerned about how they’re going to meet their basic daily needs right now because of housing costs.”

It’s a generous offer, but Flisrand will not be able to afford to be so generous in the long term. She has an emergency repair fund she could raid to cover one month’s mortgage should she not receive any rent, but that’s all. After that, she’d need to tap into her personal savings.

State Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, drafted a bill that would block evictions during a public health emergency while expanding state assistance for affected households who can’t meet their monthly rent or mortgage payments.

“Come April 1, rent is due,” Howard said. “Countless people have lost their jobs, and they’re worried about paying rent in a couple weeks. So I’m hopeful that this can be one of the things we work to get done quickly.”

The bill authorizes the state to pay landlords directly for renters who make less than 300% of the federal poverty line, which is $65,160 for a three-person household.

“We want to provide greatly expanded rental assistance so Minnesotans can make rent,” Howard said.

The proposal has won widespread support from progressive lawmakers in the Twin Cities, where most renters live. But it faces much longer odds passing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

A spokesman for Gov. Tim Walz said keeping people in their homes during this public health emergency is one of his priorities and they’re currently studying how they might do that, which could include a moratorium on evictions.

President Donald Trump has already halted evictions through April in the nation’s 1.3 million public housing units as well as foreclosures on its FHA mortgages. The president is also championing cash payments of around $1,000 to most Americans, which could help people make their rent for another month or two.

* An earlier version misspelled Janne Flisrand’s name.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.