Facing eviction, she reached out for help and found a new home

A person poses for a portrait
Ashley Gagnon poses for a portrait in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Oct. 9.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

There were boxes left to be unpacked and not much furniture inside Ashley Gagnon’s Brooklyn Center apartment on a Monday about one week after she moved in.

But inside her new home, Gagnon only sees potential.

“It’s new territory,” Gagnon said. “A new beginning.” 

The 26-year-old was unsure if she would be considered for quality and affordable housing as a renter after Gagnon said her former landlord tried to evict her earlier this year along with her 9-year-old son. Gagnon had lost her job amid the coronavirus pandemic and fell months behind in rent payments.

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“I’m not the type of person who don’t pay my bills and I understand that I live here and should be able to pay my rent,” Gagnon said. “But then the mice started to happen.”

Gagnon and her son first heard them in the vents. Eventually, Gagnon said she complained multiple times to her landlord and nothing changed, even when her belongings were damaged.

Eventually, Gagnon said she was able to reach an agreement with her landlord with help from Hennepin County adult representation services. Gagnon said her eviction was expunged and her landlord paid the rent money she owed.

a photo frame seen
Ashley Gagnon and her son, Zae’Meer Green, are visible behind packages in the photo frame at her home in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Oct. 9.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“I’m so grateful,” Gagnon said. “If I could give advice to anybody it would be don’t be scared to ask for help.”

Gagnon’s outcome is unique because she had gathered a lot of evidence to show her poor living conditions — but failure to pay rent is the most common reason for evictions filed, according to HOME Line housing attorney Rachael Sterling.

Unplanned medical expenses are a common reason why people can’t pay rent, said Sterling.  “Or, I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to tenants who had to go bury a family member, and the funeral costs were just so high, and now they couldn't pay rent for a month.”

Sterling explained the court cannot take into account what may have led to a failure of payment and must treat a lease as a contract. Once an eviction is on someone’s record, they become less competitive for what little housing is available.

“Rental availability is razor thin,” Sterling said. “So you basically get what you get.”

a person poses for a portrait
Ashley Gagnon poses for a portrait at her home in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Oct. 9.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

So many people struggled in Hennepin County as eviction moratoriums and pandemic safety nets expired or were withdrawn, that Sterling said eviction filings skyrocketed in the second half of 2022 and have not recovered. Sterling said there are about 1,000 evictions filed across the state each month, many of them coming from Hennepin County.

Mikkel Beckmen is a senior department administrator in housing stability for the Hennepin County Human Services Department. Beckmen said there are around 500 eviction filings per month in Hennepin County so far this year. Most months, Beckmen said upwards of 30 percent of people with evictions filed on them do not show up to court because they do not know it has been filed.

While more tenant rights and rental assistance programs are helpful, Beckmen says the overwhelming majority of people are unable to get an eviction taken off their record, and they usually end up in a worse housing situation or homeless. 

“One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that having a centralized way to distribute funds has been really helpful,” Beckmen said. “In the olden days, it used to be you’d get a list of resources and start calling individual agencies and go down the line.”

for Nina story
Unopened packages containing belongings belonging to Ashley Gagnon and her son, Zae'Meer Green, are seen in the living room of their home on Oct. 9 in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Beckmen said wait times for eviction court dates have stabilized to pre-pandemic levels. There are also new tenant rights at the state level slated to take effect next year that will require landlords to provide a 14-day notice to tenants before filing an eviction for nonpayment and make eviction expungement easier to access. Beckmen said there are roughly 55,000 households in Hennepin County who earn less than 30 percent of the area median income, but only about 17,000 subsidized rental units for people with extremely low incomes. 

“So it’s all a grand competition for a very scarce resource,” Beckmen said.

Family shelters were the emptiest they have been in 30 years during the pandemic eviction moratorium, Beckmen said. Now, they are in an overflow situation. 

Gagnon said she is looking forward to a new foundation and a fresh start for her and for her son. She recently landed a job with Washington County to help others access resources to avoid eviction. 

“A lot of times when we go through things, we don’t know that one day it will serve a purpose,” Gagnon said.

for Nina story
Unopened packages containing belongings belonging to Ashley Gagnon and her son, Zae'Meer Green, are seen in the living room of their home on Oct. 9 in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News