MANKATO — Housing advocates will be closely following the final days of Minnesota’s legislative session in the hopes lawmakers ensure residents have smooth off-ramps once the state’s eviction moratorium ends.
The halt on evictions, a way to keep people housed during the COVID-19 pandemic, remains in place as long as Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime state of emergency continues. He extended the state of emergency into next month, but it’s unclear how long it’ll continue beyond June.
While the Minnesota House and Senate debate timelines to phase out the eviction moratorium, local nonprofits are calling on legislators to pass protections designed to keep people from falling into homelessness.
Jen Theneman, executive director at Mankato’s Partners for Housing nonprofit, said it feels like the state is inching closer to a cliff as the moratorium’s eventual end draws nearer.
“There still continues to be a lot of unknowns,” she said. “I’m just dreading the day that happens.”
A federal relief package passed in December 2020 opened up rental assistance funding to Minnesotans, which she said will be helpful. But it’s taking time for people to get their applications in and for the money to be distributed.
Plus, some people who need the help might not know it’s out there or how to sign up for it. Partners and the Minnesota Valley Action Council are among the nonprofits helping people apply through www.renthelpmn.org.
One protection proposed by Minnesota nonprofits would require landlords to send pre-eviction notices giving tenants a specified number of days to address rent nonpayment or breached leases. The idea is to give tenants time to remedy the situation, and Minnesota is reportedly an outlier among states in not requiring the pre-eviction notices in most cases already, according to the Legal Services Advocacy Project.
The project lists only Minnesota and West Virginia as not requiring pre-notice in cases of nonpayment or breach. Most other states require at least some notice — residents in federally subsidized housing do receive pre-eviction notices.
The Greater Twin Cities United Way called for at least a 14-day notice before formal eviction actions are filed. Elizabeth Harstad, community impact director at the Greater Mankato Area United Way, said a buffer of time would help more renters access the housing assistance funding.
“It would buy a little bit more time for people to access those funds rather than be evicted and having nowhere to live,” she said.
Recent data from the Rent Dent Dashboard, a tool created to measure rent statistics across the country, found 53,000 households in Minnesota are behind on rent. Landlords are still owed unpaid rent during the moratorium, which has been in place for more than a year now.
Mass evictions could push more people into homelessness, further strain emergency housing resources and overload a court system charged with handling eviction proceedings. Lack of stable housing impacts a person’s mental health and ability to maintain employment, said Peter Helmberger, lead housing attorney for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services’ southwest region, in an email.
He added that evictions can prove costly for both the tenant and the landlord.
“Even just on a financial level, an eviction and the resulting upheaval it causes can be a losing proposition for both the tenant and the landlord, which can then lead to an additional drain on county and state resources,” he wrote.
The legal aid organization, also known as SMRLS, has been working with Blue Earth County, the city of Mankato and other area nonprofits and agencies to create an eviction diversion program. The parties plan to facilitate discussions between landlords and tenants to resolve disputes and connect them to resources to minimize “the devastating impacts of eviction and housing instability,” Helmberger wrote.
Renters with evictions on their record often have trouble finding a new place to live, creating a cycle of homelessness. Another legislative solution proposed by housing advocates this session would prohibit evictions from being reported on tenants’ records until courts rule in favor of landlords.
And once on their records, the tenants could have evictions expunged after three years, down from seven.
More requests from housing advocates this legislative session include investments to expand homeless shelters across the state and monthly funding for people to reduce housing costs. The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless called for the measures among its priorities for the 2021 legislative session.
As for what protections will make it through a divided Legislature once the dust settles, it’s hard to guess.
From her testimony in front of lawmakers on housing issues, Theneman said she’s at least hopeful some help is on the way.
“I just think COVID-19 and the pandemic has brought to light the challenges to housing even more than it was before,” she said.