ST. PAUL -- By the end of this week, the remaining COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Gov. Tim Walz will be largely gone. The biggest exception is a moratorium on rental property evictions.
Legislative negotiations about how to end the moratorium in an orderly way have gotten bogged down over timing, notice requirements and other aspects of the tenant-landlord relationship.
As a new program rolls out — albeit slowly — to provide financial assistance to people late in their rent and utilities or those soon to be behind, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said lawmakers need to proceed carefully in how they fashion an off-ramp to an eviction moratorium.
“The anxiety of both owners and renters is real. Getting people paid is a win-win,” Ho said. “Why would the Legislature want to inflict unnecessary harm that creates a chaotic environment when we’re all tired from what we’ve been through with the pandemic and the economy?”
For more than a year, property owners have faced a high bar when attempting to cancel leases or otherwise remove problem tenants. An executive order aimed at keeping people in stable housing during the pandemic took evictions for lapsed rent off the table.
It allowed removal only if landlords could show tenants endangered the safety of others or significantly damaged property.
Cecil Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said apartment owners have struggled to even make those eviction actions stick.
“Loud parties, numerous police calls, threatening behavior does not qualify. And I’ve heard it directly from owners and managers, but the neighbors are having to put up with that week after week,” Smith said, adding, “We have people that are behaving badly in our properties and we need to bring some relief to their neighbors who have put up with their nonsense for far too long.”
On the flip side, tenant rights groups worry that lowering the threshold or removing the moratorium too quickly will have dire consequences.
Minneapolis renter Arianna Anderson joined other advocates this month to push for assurances that most evictions won’t resume for at least a year.
“We can’t afford for anyone else, for the homeless rate, we can’t afford for it to go up any more than it already is. It’s a crisis. It’s tragic,” she said. “I mean just look around the city, you see tent cities popping up.”
Anderson is allied with the Equity In Place coalition that is also pushing to require property owners to provide more notice and leniency before removal actions.
Nothing will change until Walz rescinds his moratorium order. He said that hinges on lawmakers reaching agreement on a path forward.
“I’ve said from the beginning: I don’t think you can let this instantly sunset,” Walz said. “I’ve said if we can reach a compromise in the House and Senate, we will certainly sign what they come up with.”
But Senate Housing Committee Chair Rich Draheim said there are some considerable sticking points.
“Right now we are at a standstill,” Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said as the regular legislative session gaveled to a close last week.
Draheim and the landlord group are growing pessimistic. That’s in part because House Democratic negotiators know the status quo is the fallback if no consensus is found. And with fewer COVID-19 restrictions in place, public pressure for Walz to give up the remaining measures won’t be as intense.
“If it’s an off-ramp bill, truly an off-ramp bill, let’s do an off-ramp and not make political changes that are politically motivated instead of doing what we’re supposed to, which is an off-ramp,” Draheim said.
Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, is one of the House members immersed in the discussions. He also prefers a legislative fix over a lingering executive order.
For one, the governor’s mandate could grow increasingly vulnerable to legal challenges as the state moves further away from the acute phase of the health crisis. And there’s anxiety for both renters and landlords about their respective situations in a post-pandemic world.
“Really what the outstanding issues are: the timeline for when evictions could proceed, some base level notice provided to renters that eviction action is coming and some limited expungement piece so improperly filed evictions don’t end up on someone’s record for a decade,” Howard said. “There really is a need for us to come together to figure out a path forward.”
DFL negotiators want landlords to hold off on most evictions for financial reasons for a year after the moratorium lifts. And then provide at least 30 days’ notice before canceling a lease or moving to evict a person for failing to pay rent or otherwise breaching a lease.
If there is agreement on an eviction moratorium off-ramp, it could be added to the agenda for an upcoming June special session.
While there is undoubtedly a backlog of cases that could lead to eviction, the multi housing association’s Smith doesn’t buy the idea there will be a rush to the courthouse. Some situations won’t get to the point of eviction if leases aren’t renewed or if tenants leave short of having a formal eviction blemish go on their record.
“Ninety-five percent of all evictions filed in the state are for nonpayment,” Smith said. “So if you have in any way a COVID-related financial need, there are $672 million not to worry.”
He’s referring to federal rental assistance available through the RentHelpMN.org portal that went live at the end of April. People can also apply by calling 211.
Both tenant advocates and property owners are frustrated by the slow rollout of checks so far in the program managed by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.
“It is difficult to apply, it is difficult to know the status of the application, and there is no clear timeline for the process,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Minnesota Housing Justice Center. “We know that there are people at Minnesota Housing who are working very hard to try to make the system work better, but when someone experiencing trauma about the future of their housing is on the other end of the phone our focus is on that person. The system needs to work for them.”
Smith said landlords who have worked in conjunction with their tenants to provide the required verification and financial information have endured problems, too.
“The manager confirms: Yes, this is the right address, this is the property being rented, this is the amount of money owed, this is the resident,” Smith said. “And they hit the verification and approval button to say, ‘Yep, from our point of view it looks right and the wheel spins.’ ”
Commissioner Ho said making sure the required details are in hand and ensuring eligibility have taken time. She said the largest complications have involved people not used to applying for government assistance, who submit incomplete information or who lack internet access.
“This isn’t like any federal intervention on rental assistance that has ever existed before,” she said.
About 18,000 applications submitted jointly by renters and their landlords have come in during the first month. There are about three to five times more households that could eventually be eligible, based on various estimates. People can qualify for up to 15 months of assistance for housing payments and utilities going back to the early days of the pandemic and up to three months into the future.
But so far only about a half-million dollars have gone out the door. Ho expects that will pick up soon. The agency plans to launch an online dashboard in a matter of weeks that lists the number of applications submitted, those that have been fully processed and the money attached to approved claims.
"We share that sense of urgency. We can't move fast enough,” Ho said. “We know that people are hurting."