Just yesterday, an encampment under the 35W bridge on 31st Street in Minneapolis was cleared by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Witnesses said they saw workers moving people’s belongings and around 20 propane tanks, which people use to fuel portable heaters to have heat in their tents, Southwest Voices reported.
Temperatures are dropping at dangerous rates, which poses safety threats for the unhoused. A former University of Minnesota law student has some thoughts about what could help during the cold winter months.
Almost two years ago, Daniel Suitor wrote an article for the Minnesota Law Review, expressing that the state should implement a winter-eviction moratorium to solve the issue of cold-related deaths and injuries among the unhoused populations. Suitor still holds his stance on the issue and he says the laws put in place during the pandemic, like the COVID-19 eviction moratoriums, can improve outcomes.
Suitor now works at HOME Line, a nonprofit statewide tenant advocacy organization that provides free and low-cost legal assistance, education and advocacy services.
“It got really cold, and it’s just a lot of evictions in Minnesota right now,” Suitor said. “I think a lot about how I talk to people all day at HOME Line who are being evicted, and they say, ‘Where am I gonna go? I have nowhere to go. It’s cold.'”
So far, in 2022, there have been 1,340 evictions in Hennepin County, a 234% difference from last year. With rising evictions, more people are seeking emergency shelter. The latest Hennepin County shelter report shows 238 families living in shelters as of Dec. 9, an increase of 255% from the same time the previous year.
Tenant protection laws
Minnesota already has some laws to preserve tenant safety during winter months. The Cold Weather Rule protects people from having their heat source permanently disconnected from Oct. 15th through April 15 if they can’t pay their utility bills. The rule prevents companies from disconnecting utilities for customers whose household income is at or below 50% of the state median income.
But Minnesota does not prevent evictions due to non-payment of rent during winter. A policy like that could prevent most evictions, Suitor said. In Minneapolis, 93% of evictions are for non-payment of rent.
“(A vast majority) are just financial problems. Somebody loses a job, finds a new job, but they don’t get paid for a month; they got hit with an unexpected expense,” Suitor said. “When I see these evictions for non-payment of rent, they are usually the end process of a series of calamities for somebody who has done their best. That should not result in somebody being thrown out in the street in the winter.”
So he looked at other areas to see what cold weather protections exist and came about a city ordinance in Seattle, which was passed in 2020. While he was writing his article, the ordinance wasn’t being enforced because it was under legal challenge.
It is now being enforced and protects people under the area median income from being evicted between Dec. 1 and March 1. The law has exceptions if the tenant is engaging in illegal activity or causing a danger to people in the unit, among other things.
Cold weather deaths by the numbers
From 2002-2019, cold-related illnesses accounted for 588 deaths in Minnesota. The overall trend shows an increase in cold-related deaths from 2002 to 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
In 2019, there were 62 cold-related deaths in Minnesota. Both Hennepin and Ramsey counties also have higher rates of emergency department visits for cold-related illnesses compared to the statewide average.
Additionally, when including comorbidities, temperatures below 32°F have been found to increase unhoused peoples’ overall risk of death by 84%. That risk rises to 321% when the temperature drops below 9°F.
HOME Line sees evictions hitting BIPOC Minnesotans at higher rates than white Minnesotans, Suitor said.
In the third quarter of 2022, 50% of HOME Line’s clients were BIPOC, and 32% of clients were Black.
In addition, 90% of their callers fall at or below the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s low-income threshold. Their BIPOC callers report incomes 31% lower than white callers, Suitor said. However, the income disparity between BIPOC and white callers is reversed, with BIPOC people who call regarding evictions earning 3% more than white eviction callers.
“This data suggests that while BIPOC and white renters face eviction at roughly equal rates when controlling for income, the statistically lower incomes of our BIPOC clients makes them more likely to face eviction overall,” Suitor wrote.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of federal and state eviction moratoriums prevented renters from being evicted from their homes. Minnesota gradually phased out eviction protections, lifting all eviction restrictions on June 1, 2022.
Renters and now unhoused people and shelters have felt the impacts of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium ending across the state.
“We’ve got more people accessing shelter and more people sleeping outside due to the ending of the eviction moratorium, said Steve Horsfield, the executive director of Simpson Housing. “The numbers have increased dramatically in the latter half of 2022. And we’re presuming that is the driver.”
Simpson is one of the many organizations that have an emergency shelter. Its staff also helps run the Hennepin County Adult Shelter Connect service, which connects individuals with the nearly 700 beds available in the county.
From January – October, 5,864 people stayed in emergency shelters in Hennepin County and 2,981 in Ramsey county, according to Minnesota’s Institute for Community Alliances. Across the state during the same period, 16,688 people were served in emergency shelters.
Minnesota’s shelters have more demand than they have beds, Horsfield said. Across the Adult Shelter Connect service, they have had to turn away many people seeking a place to stay.
“Yesterday during the day, we turned away about 40 people who called us up trying to access shelter, and we didn’t have beds for them. That was during the daytime hours. When we reopened in the evening for a few hours, from about 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., we turned away another 20 folks that were trying to access shelter,” Horsfield said.
What can be learned from the COVID-19 eviction moratoriums?
While Suitor continues to advocate a cold-weather eviction moratorium, he doesn’t think it is very likely to pass unless progressive members of city councils focus on housing issues.
“It’s a pretty progressive policy, and any time you talk about restricting a landlord’s rights, they have more money than poor renters who are one missed paycheck from being thrown out on the street, so they have a little more of an ability to lobby the city council,” Suitor said.
The statewide eviction moratorium was upheld on many counts and survived challenges in the state and federal courts. That precedent could pave a path for future moratorium laws, he hopes.
“The fights over the COVID moratoriums have really laid the legal pathway to write these laws in a way that they can be upheld as constitutional,” he said. “We’ve shown people that the government can act to protect tenants. I think there is now a social will to look around and say, ‘Well, it worked once.” We probably can’t have a total eviction moratorium again, but it seems reasonable to me that people would look at how the law might have protected them or people they knew and say, maybe we could get a little bit of that during some of the coldest months of the year.”