The eviction moratorium is working, but some landlords find a way

Dabby Dobbins stands in front of the house she rents in south Minneapolis. She fought her eviction in court and won but is still looking for a new home for her family. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Dabby Dobbins was sure she and her family were going to be kicked out of their house in Minneapolis, and she had no idea where they would go.

The property manager had accused her of hiring two men to beat him up, and her landlord sent her a formal notice of eviction.

Dobbins fervently denied the accusation: “I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do something like that,” she said. But also didn’t trust anyone would believe her. “I was terrified. How do you convince a system that throws poor people out on the street that you didn’t do anything?”

Dobbins, 58, now lives with her brother, adult daughter and her five adopted children with special needs, ages 6-14, making ends meet with Social Security and the children’s disability payments

They had been renting the three-bedroom house just off Lake Street for $1,600 per month plus utilities for over a year without issue. The problems began in June when her landlord Neal Watkins, a photographer currently living in India, told her he’d be raising her rent by $200.

“I said, ‘You can’t do that during COVID … and I don’t have it anyway,’” Dobbins said.

Dobbins already needs to go to food shelves to make it through the month, so an extra $200 a month just wasn’t possible. She refused to sign a new lease but continued to pay the $1,600 per month.

Although Dobbins’ landlord is legally allowed to raise the rent, Gov. Tim Walz’s eviction moratorium is designed to prevent tenants from being thrown out if they can’t pay.

There are exceptions to the eviction moratorium, however, in cases where the tenant poses a physical threat to other people, destroys property or breaks the law.

Hiring two people to rough up a property manager would be an eligible reason to evict a tenant during the peacetime emergency. The month after Dobbins refused to sign a new lease, she received the eviction notice for being physically threatening and for causing property damage. (The caretaker claimed she broke her front door; Dobbins says it was broken when she moved in.)

Dobbins refused to leave.

“If I leave that means I’m guilty of something,” she said.

The moratorium is working

Walz’s moratorium has helped vulnerable renters like Dobbins. Evictions have plummeted since the moratorium went into effect. Last year, landlords filed an average of around 1,300 evictions each month across the state. After the eviction moratorium took effect in March, there were 55 evictions filed in April and 43 in May.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns evictions could increase the spread of COVID-19 by forcing people to crowd into their relative’s homes or shelters. The agency enacted their own moratorium on evictions nationwide through the end of the year.

Renter advocates say the drop in eviction filings show the moratorium is largely working, while warning a wave of evictions could still come if the restrictions are lifted.

Landlords often see it differently. Federal and state relief has reached people who need it, and the governor should continue to slowly loosen the restrictions on evictions.

“There is not this massive wave of financial stress in the housing sector and a tsunami of evictions coming, which has been a narrative that has continued to be propagated over and over and over again, with no data to support that,” said Cecil Smith, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, a landlord trade group.

According to data collected by Smith’s group, very few renters have stopped paying rent even as the federal stimulus and added unemployment benefits have now come and gone. In August, landlords of more affordable houses and apartments reported 88% of tenants had paid compared to 94% in August of last year. Landlords of higher-end units reported even higher rates of payment.

Early in the pandemic, the Minnesota Multi Housing Association and renter advocates were both on the same page, lobbying the Legislature for $100 million in housing assistance.

At that point, the governor had ordered bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation to close, but the U.S. Congress had not yet passed the historic $2.2 trillion Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which would provide most Americans with $1,200 and an extra $600 a week for the newly unemployed.

A wave of evictions seemed imminent — with a wave of foreclosures to follow — if thousands of renters couldn’t pay their rent. That would have done massive damage to the economy and undercut the benefits of slowing down the economy to keep people at home in the first place.

Once the unemployment benefits started arriving, personal income actually increased nationwide because so many people were receiving more money on unemployment than they made while working. Data show those people mostly saved the money or paid off debts, while continuing to pay rent. Since the aid has dried up, poverty has risen higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The city, county and state have also stepped up with housing assistance programs, though their benefits have been slower to arrive. Of the $100 million in state rental assistance that became available in August, less than half has been spoken for. Only about $17.5 million has actually been spent as of mid-October.

That’s reflective of the time it takes to stand up a large assistance program, get the word out to renters who may need it, have them collect the necessary information, get the paperwork from landlords and verify their applications.

But advocates say people in financial distress are making adjustments for the long haul, like moving in with family or friends, rather than applying for limited assistance.

The vacancy rate has edged up slightly in the Twin Cities since the pandemic began, but is still in uncomfortably competitive territory for renters: 3.4% overall and around 2% for cheaper and larger units. A vacancy rate of 5% is generally thought of as the sweet spot for the rental market.

“People are making very rational choices about their own housing stability and choosing not to end up facing the stress of having all this back rent piling up,” Smith said. “Most people naturally try to avoid those kinds of situations. They look for other solutions.”

Even so, evictions have crept up as the pandemic has worn on and the governor loosened restrictions, with 152 evictions filed in September.

“We’re definitely starting to see more eviction filings,” said Luke Grundman, a lawyer with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “And from our perspective, we’re seeing a lot of cases that really are not what the governor intended to allow to go forward right now.”

For example, landlords are claiming significant property damage for minor issues; attempting to evict because an extra family member has moved into a unit; or alleging the tenants are engaged in unlawful behavior for smoking marijuana.

“We started to call them ‘marijuana smell cases,’” Grundman said. “Where the landlord will just say, ‘I was at the house, and I smelled marijuana as I walked past.’ . . .  Judges will often throw those cases out, but we can’t represent everybody.”

Eviction is  often “voluntary” — once the note is taped on renters’ doors, they start scrambling to move. Which is why the real extent of evictions — and housing stability overall — is difficult to gauge because so many are informal. Often just the threat of an eviction or raising the rent is enough to get someone to move.

When Dobbins got her eviction notice, she assumed the worst was coming, but she dug in her heels.

She didn’t want to move in the pandemic. She has a chronic lung condition — she uses oxygen at night — and it takes her a long time to find a place. In her price range, a family on a fixed income with several disabled children is rarely the most attractive applicant.

“So I waited, worried and waited,” Dobbins said.

Arianna Feldman, an organizer with Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice), pulls eviction filings in Minneapolis each week and sends advocates to knock on each door to offer legal help. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The tenants rights group Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (United Renters for Justice) began canvassing for people facing eviction and needing legal help shortly after the governor eased some restrictions on evictions in August — allowing them in cases of severe property damage.

Each week they pull all the eviction filings in Minneapolis and knock on each door.

“Our concern was that evictions would start at all in the middle of this health and financial crisis,” said Arianna Feldman, an organizer with Inquilinxs Unidxs. “And our concern was that landlords might use the reasons as a pretext to evict people for non payment of rent.”

Most of the time no one answers; they’ve already moved.

Dobbins was outside her home waiting and worrying when Feldman and another advocate walked up her front path. They advised Dobbins to call HOME Line, which provides free legal guidance to renters in Minnesota. They told her to make sure she show up to her court date and helped her get a lawyer, who represented her for free.

“The trial came, and I wanted to just hit the floor,” Dobbins said. “The lies that they told on me. I was so embarrassed and hurt. It was scary. And I’m still afraid. … But I’m blessed because the judge seen right through them.”

The judge ruled in Dobbins’ favor. The eviction case was expunged from her record and she’s stayed in her house.

The landlord’s lawyer, Steven Coon, said he was not surprised by the judge’s decision, but that his client, Neal Watkins, believes the allegations his caretaker made against Dobbins.

Even though Dobbins won the right to stay in her house, it’s not like she wants to after almost being evicted. Her neighborhood was also hit hard during the civil unrest and continues to feel unsafe.

Dobbins is trying to save money to move and looking for another house for her family. One added barrier is she doesn’t have a good reference from her current landlord, which is something future landlords often want to see. It’s easy to be discouraged.

“I’m looking for places, but I’ll see a nice place and then I … I just know they’ll never rent to me,” Dobbins said. “And if they do, they’re going to charge me too much money.”

*This story originally misspelled Dabby Dobbins’ last name. It has been corrected.

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.