Rochester eviction rates show no sign of slowing

A woman shows a program on a laptop computer.
Kenedy Atkinson of Three Rivers Community Action tracks people needing emergency housing assistance in a spreadsheet. She says demand this summer from households facing eviction has been unexpectedly high.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

As she opens her laptop, Kenedy Atkinson sees a troubling rise in the rate of evictions through a series of hundreds of green, red and yellow cells in a spreadsheet. 

Green rows are households her team at Three Rivers Community Action, which serves Southeast Minnesota, were able to give emergency housing assistance. Red households didn’t qualify and yellow households are still in progress. 

The spreadsheet represents the 250 calls Three Rivers received only in June, the majority from people facing an imminent eviction. 

“We were anticipating a high need, but in a three week time span, you know, that's quite a bit,” she said. 

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Demand was so high that Three Rivers had to pause applications to give staff time to catch up. 

They've just reopened the program and have until the end of September to spend an infusion of $700,000 in housing stability funds from the state. But one week into the month, $600,000 has already been committed, with most going to residents of Olmsted County.

Eviction filings keep rising here: they’re up 16 percent between January and June of this year compared to the same period in 2022.

“We really thought that at some point, we would start to see a reduction in the number of evictions being filed. And we're not,” said Karen Fairbairn Nath, executive director of Legal Assistance of Olmsted County. 

Housing advocates in Rochester braced for a rise in evictions after a host of COVID-era protections phased out in October of 2021, she said. 

“We expected to be slammed that we did not anticipate that it would continue to increase and escalate, we thought we'd see the end of it at some point,” said Fairbairn Nath. 

Statewide trend

What's playing out in Olmsted County is a familiar story to Margaret Kaplan, who is president of the Housing Justice Center. She said around the state, eviction rates haven't stabilized as predicted. 

“The rates went up. And the rates stayed up. And they have persistently been significantly above pre-pandemic levels,” she said. 

What's also notable is that eviction filing rates are up even in areas that don't have a lot of renters. 

“When you look across the state, there are places in the metro area and in greater Minnesota, in high population counties, and in low population counties, where we've seen significant increases in eviction rates and significant increases in comparison to what was happening pre-pandemic,” said Kaplan. 

There are a few factors contributing to these trends, said Kaplan. 

First, inflation has made everything more expensive, so people who could afford their rent before are suddenly having trouble.

Secondly, wages aren't keeping up with housing costs. As a result, even so-called affordable housing that takes into account tenant income when setting rents usually isn't affordable to the people who need those rentals the most.

Meanwhile, rental assistance became so streamlined during the pandemic, it created a lot of confusion when it expired.

“It can be very, very confusing for people because they don't necessarily know what is the right door to knock on,” she said. 

Back in Rochester, these trends are straining other resources. 

Dan Jensen oversees family assistance and support at Olmsted County. His team tries to stretch county assistance by partnering with other nonprofits. But their funding is drying up, driven by increased demand. 

“Salvation Army, Saint Vincent de Paul, and others are running or have run out of resources,” he said. “So what that means is that there's fewer and fewer organizations that can help create that safety net. So our safety net is becoming thinner.”

Most of the households Three Rivers Community Action helps can barely afford even so-called affordable housing, said Atkinson.

“They're on track, they're managing. But then it's something as little as a car repair — that's a couple hundred dollars,” she said. “And that's the one thing that sets them off track.”