Evictions tick up as state phases out moratorium

By: - August 5, 2021 1:57 pm
family evicted nevada

Photo by Michael Lyle/Nevada Current.

Weekly eviction filings have about tripled since Minnesota began rolling back its moratorium put in place nearly 18 months ago, although they remain just a fraction of pre-pandemic levels because landlords may not yet evict tenants for missing rent.

Beginning on July 14, landlords could resume evicting tenants for material violations of lease agreements — like noise disturbances, smoking or having pets if prohibited in the lease.

The number of eviction filings in Minnesota was 83 last week, up from an average around 30 a week since the beginning of the year. That’s still much lower than the 344 evictions filed during an average week in 2019.

Both tenant advocates and landlords are bracing for a chaotic rental market in the coming year, confronting a new off-ramp to the eviction moratorium in Minnesota even as state government has been slow to push out hundreds of millions in rental assistance from the federal government. For now, landlords say they are evicting the most disruptive tenants.

“We’re addressing the situations where we have had bad actors and where we have pleaded with the governor for action for a long time,” said Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, a trade group representing landlords.

Smith’s group dropped a lawsuit against the governor over the moratorium earlier this month after the Legislature agreed to an off-ramp and the governor withdrew his moratorium.

While the governor’s moratorium allowed landlords to evict tenants who significantly damage property or pose a physical threat to other tenants, landlords have said it’s been difficult to remove problem tenants during the pandemic.

Luke Grundman, who represents low-income renters with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said he’s bracing for a sharp increase in cases as the off-ramp continues.

“It’s true we’re not near where we were pre-pandemic, but it’s still been an escalating sense of chaos,” Grundman said.

The increase in evictions comes as the country stares down a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant ripping through unvaccinated populations. The seven-day rolling average of new cases was just 86 in Minnesota when the first phase of the off-ramp took effect on June 30. It’s now 593.

In response to the latest surge in cases, the federal Centers for Disease Control extended its own nationwide eviction moratorium on Tuesday through Oct. 3 in areas where COVID-19 transmission rates are high. This has little bearing on Minnesotans, however, given the broader state-level protections that apply to renters regardless of local transmission rates or if their income has been affected by the pandemic.

The vast majority of evictions are for not paying rent, but those evictions are barred in Minnesota until Sept. 12 for renters ineligible for rental assistance. Renters who have pending applications for rental assistance will be protected from eviction for nonpayment of rent until June 1, 2022.

The state has been painfully slow to distribute the $672 million it received from the federal government for rental assistance — the result of the state’s housing agency having to set up an entirely new benefits program more than 10 times the size of its annual budget along with burdensome federal application requirements.

While some $196 million has been requested by renters in the state, just $28.8 million has been paid out since the state began receiving funding from the federal government in January.

An estimated 58,000 Minnesota households owe some $193 million in rent, according to the research non-profit PolicyLink.

The problem is national. On July 30, President Joe Biden issued a statement calling on state and local governments to “take all possible steps to immediately disburse these funds” — an unrealistic ask given the time it takes to verify each lengthy application.

“There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic,” he wrote.

The delay in rental assistance payments may be trapping landlords and tenants in awkward situations, as landlords can only receive payments from current tenants. If their tenants leave with a large debt, landlords won’t be able to be made whole through rental assistance. They could instead file a complaint against the renters in small claims court.

As the state’s courts begin ramping back up, Grundman is concerned that tenants will be rushed through the court system.

“These were complicated cases before the pandemic, and they’re more complicated with this off-ramp legislation… (and) the CDC moratorium,” Grundman said. “Those complications require more judicial resources to make the decisions and to get them right.”

Minnesota renters can apply for assistance with rent and utility payments at RentHelpMN.org.

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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.