Minn. lawmakers wrestle with what follows COVID-19 eviction rule

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads "Cancel Rent!"
Demonstrators listen during the "Cancel Rent and Mortgages" rally in June 2020 in Minneapolis. A pandemic-related executive order has put most renter evictions on hold, but Minnesota lawmakers are starting to sort through what will be put in its place and how to avoid a surge in removals.
Brandon Bell | Getty Images 2020

Minnesota lawmakers are beginning to confront complexities involved in ending an eviction moratorium in place for most of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that doesn’t swamp the system.

In a Senate Housing Finance and Policy Committee hearing Thursday, property owners and tenant rights advocates debated the restrictions on evictions and lease terminations. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz imposed the state moratorium last March to protect renters from removal for financial reasons, which dovetailed with federal limits that also remain in place.

A House bill around evictions was introduced earlier this year but has yet to advance. A Senate bill will be ready for consideration soon, said Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who chairs the committee.

The challenge, he said, will be to “find that balance” between the competing interests.

Prior to the pandemic, most eviction proceedings were connected to nonpayment of rent. Federal, income-based rental assistance is likely to continue well into 2021.

Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, said it’s time to plan for a wind-down so property owners can protect their interests. He said it can be done without pushing people on the financial margins into homelessness or causing a crush of cases in the courts.

Smith told the panel that the Walz executive order has made it difficult for some landlords to police unruly tenants, leading their neighbors to complain or move instead.

“We have seen many, many residents be displaced because they have grown intolerant of the bad behavior of their neighbors,” Smith said. “There have been too many people who have suffered at the expense of their neighbors being stably housed and have lost their stable housing, which is really unfortunate and certainly an unintended consequence.”

Leanna Stefaniak, of At Home Apartments, said her company has felt as though its hands were tied when dealing with problem tenants and faced backlash from other renters for not acting on complaints.

“The current language is designed for us to wait until something really, really bad happens before we’re able to exercise our rights,” she said. “That’s not OK. It can’t continue like this.”

Tenant rights advocates said even under Walz’s order, landlords retained power to seek eviction of people for episodes of violence, harassment or extreme violation of lease agreements. They say it’s important to proceed with any relaxation of the eviction pause in an orderly way so people who are behind in rent aren’t pushed into homelessness.

Zach Eichten, public policy director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said there isn’t capacity in shelters to handle a surge in displaced people.

“If the off-ramp we’re discussing here is rushed, people we can prevent from becoming homeless will be forced on the streets,” Eichten said. “We need to lead with compassion and provide the resources to prevent as much homelessness as possible.”

Larry McDonough, an attorney who specializes in housing law, said the solution could involve greater use of mediation, staggered eviction proceedings to put the most serious cases first and help for people who are evicted to find new housing.

Just flipping an eviction switch could be devastating, he said.

“If we opened up evictions right now I think you’d have almost a year’s worth of eviction numbers in a month,” McDonough told the committee.

Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said lawmakers would be well-served involving court leaders, county officials and others to prepare for what happens once the moratorium ends.

“I know we like to hope for the best, but I think we should plan for the worst,” she said. “There are good landlords and there are good tenants. And then there are both landlords and tenants that are problematic. So how do we help those who are good landlords and good tenants stay in those homes without causing consequences for them.”

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