Landlords push for eviction moratorium ‘off-ramp’ in Senate committee hearing

By: - February 11, 2021 7:34 pm

Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Landlords are pushing the state to begin lifting the restrictions on evicting tenants, put in place nearly a year ago by Gov. Tim Walz to prevent people from being displaced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A wave of evictions could contribute to the spread of the virus and exacerbate the economic fallout, according to public health experts.

The state Senate’s Housing Finance and Policy Committee heard testimony Thursday from both landlords and renter advocates on how to erect an “off-ramp” to the eviction moratorium.

Both landlords and renter advocates agree that providing rental assistance to Minnesotans experiencing financial hardship is critical before the eviction moratorium can be rolled back.

Cecil Smith, president and CEO of Minnesota Multi Housing Association, a trade group representing property owners and managers, detailed a proposal to gradually phase out eviction restrictions that would maintain protections for middle- and low-income renters while allowing landlords to terminate or not renew leases of renters who violate other provisions of their leases.

Smith did not provide a timeline on his proposal, noting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are likely to extend their nationwide eviction moratorium beyond March.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who is also a realtor and landlord, said he plans legislation to undo the eviction moratorium, although it’s unlikely to gain traction in the DFL-controlled House. Senate Republicans have pushed a series of bills aiming to end or curtail Walz’s executive orders addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Landlords reported a slight drop in rental payments from less expensive units, although the vast majority of renters are making payments, according to a survey of member landlords by the Minnesota Multi Housing Association. Landlords of more affordable units reported receiving 86% of rent payments by Jan. 6 compared to 92% in January 2020. Landlords of more expensive housing units reported collecting a higher percentage of payments.

Smith said the data indicates a wave of evictions is not imminent as long as rental assistance continues to reach landlords.

Gov. Tim Walz directed $100 million in federal aid toward rental assistance last year, and the latest federal coronavirus relief bill provides $375 million to Minnesota for rental assistance, although that money has yet to begin being distributed. The pandemic has hit low-income workers hardest, and they are more likely to be people of color and more likely to be renters.

Renter advocates caution against phasing out the eviction moratorium before those dollars begin reaching renters to avoid exacerbating the spread of the virus and overburdening the state’s shelter system.

“If the off-ramp is rushed, people we can prevent from becoming homeless will be forced on the street,” said Zack Eichten, public policy director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

Smith said the state’s eviction moratorium is too stringent and has backfired in some cases by forcing some renters to move away from problem neighbors who property managers can’t remove.

Minnesota’s eviction moratorium aimed at protecting the state’s roughly 600,000 renters is among the most restrictive in the country. It bars landlords from evicting tenants or not renewing their leases for not paying rent or breaking the terms of a lease. But it also provides exceptions in situations in which the renter poses a danger to other residents or managers, possesses illegal drugs or firearms or has caused significant damage to the property.

Despite these exceptions, three property managers shared horror stories with the Senate committee about problem renters they’ve been unable to push out because of the moratorium.

Bernadette Hornig, whose family business operates 4,500 rental units across the Twin Cities, said she has had tenants refuse to stop smoking in their apartments, people urinate in public spaces, and one tenant be so disruptive and threatening that the property manager moved.

“I feel like this executive order is protecting bad actors,” Hornig said.

Leanne Stefaniak with At Home Apartments shared a story of a mother with two young kids who invited her boyfriend to live with them and then had to flee when he became abusive, leaving all of her belongings behind.

“(She) begged us to do whatever we could to help her move him out. He was an unauthorized occupant,” Stefaniak said. “Because of the moratorium, there was nothing we could do. This ultimately led to her couch surfing.”

The eviction moratorium does not extend to guests or protect domestic abusers, so it’s unclear why the man could not be removed.

While evictions have plummeted since the start of the moratorium, hundreds have still moved forward across the state. Not all have been brought in good faith, according to renter advocates.

Michael Dahl, public policy director of Home Line, which provides free advice to renters, said they’ve seen landlords rush through evictions by making false claims about their tenants.

Dahl said the phase-out of the eviction moratorium should give renters ample time to exhaust all rental assistance possibilities and remedy any problems they have with their landlords to avoid a wave of eviction filings.

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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.