Negotiators in the Minnesota Legislature trying to reach a deal on an end to the state’s eviction moratorium have expressed frustration at the progress of talks, with one raising the possibility this week that no agreement will be reached in time for lawmakers’ mid-June special session.
What has been dubbed an eviction moratorium “off-ramp” is meant to smooth the process for resolving unpaid rent that has accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In place since March, 2020, the moratorium imposed by executive order of Gov. Tim Walz halted most evictions. It did not, however, waive rent payments and debt has accumulated for some renters who lost jobs during the pandemic. Once the moratorium is lifted, landlords will be able to use eviction law to either collect back rent or remove tenants from housing units.
Both the bipartisan bill passed in the state Senate to create an off-ramp, as well as the one passed in the DFL-controlled state House on a party-line vote, create a timeline for evictions: Tenants who violated non-financial provisions of their leases would be first in line for evictions, followed by those who likely could have paid their rent but did not. Low-income renters would face eviction only after they had applied for rent help from the state and only after time has passed for the money to be paid. The Senate bill would have blocked evictions for renters asking for help until June of 2022.
That deadline is considered by both parties as a way to prompt more tenants and their landlords to apply for rental assistance payments. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and seven partner local governments unveiled the state’s rental assistance portal, RentHelpMN, on April 20 to process applications for up to 15 months of rent payments for struggling tenants. (Renters can also get help by calling the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s 211 Resource Helpline: 1-800-543-7709 or 651-291-0211.)
A dashboard created by PolicyLink, a national policy organization in Oakland, California, estimates that 53,000 Minnesota households owe nearly $156 million in back rent. The average debt is $2,900.
“The people who are doing the right thing and have really been affected and qualify get a longer period to stay in their units and get the help they need,” said Senate Housing Committee Chair Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake. “We want to get rid of the bad apples and make sure the people who qualify get the help because we have the money.”
What was not agreed to by a House-Senate conference committee before last week’s adjournment are several issues, including how much notice landlords must provide tenants before starting eviction proceedings and when the phase-out would begin. The Senate bill said it would start 30 days after a bill is signed, regardless of whether Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency is still in place. The House wants the off-ramp to start only when the ban is lifted. The House also wants unfounded evictions to be expunged from legal records, since tenants with past evictions have difficulty finding new rental housing.
Draheim said just before the Senate adjourned on Monday that the DFL counteroffer would have reduced the eviction notice to tenants from 60 days to 30 days. But even at 30 days, Minnesota would have the longest notice period in the U.S. for non-payment of rent evictions, Draheim said.
The GOP has given up on its demand that permanent changes to the governor’s emergency authority over evictions be made. The Senate bill limited future moratoria to 30 days unless approved by both the House and Senate.
“Right now we are at a standstill,” Draheim said. “We’ll keep the conversation going. But are we going to have an off-ramp or not? I’ve had quite a few senators come up to me and say it’s probably too late to do an off-ramp.”
Walz, however, said on April 30 that without an off-ramp bill, he won’t end the eviction moratorium.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, chairs the House Housing Committee and along with Draheim chaired the conference committee working on the Housing omnibus bill. She too expressed frustration that the conferees have not reached agreement, but disagreed that the House is seeking permanent changes in landlord-tenant law. “Everything we’re changing is only for the time period of this emergency,” Hausman said. “None of this is permanent.”
Minnesota, she said, is one of just four states without eviction notice requirements in statute. A formal notice not only gives tenants time to find other housing but could spur them to pursue help via RentHelpMN.com. “They need time,” Hausman said. “The off-ramp buys time not just for the tenants but for the courts and landlords.”
Cecil Smith, the executive director of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, expressed his own frustration, saying the path to “a reasonable soft landing” for the rental housing market was in reach in January, once the rental assistance money was sent to the state by the COVID relief act passed by Congress in December. Five months later, “we don’t have a functional rental assistance program and we have no off-ramp,” Smith said.
DFLers are not negotiating in a political vacuum. Advocates are watching the process and are pushing the DFL to hold firm on several provisions. Equity in Place, a coalition of tenant rights and equity organizations in the Twin Cities, has demanded that any off-ramp continue to halt evictions until the federal rent assistance is completely dispersed and implement eviction notice requirements and expungement of records of evictions found to have not been valid. “As the Legislature negotiates the end of this eviction moratorium, we’re here to say no evictions,” said the coalition’s Owen Duckworth. “We demand that the eviction moratorium prioritizes racial equity and prioritizes housing stability.”
Sen. Kari Dzeidzic, DFL-Minneapolis, is one of 10 DFL senators to vote for the Senate version of the off-ramp. While there are aspects of that bill she doesn’t favor, she said getting an agreement is vital to maintaining stability in housing. “We need the off-ramp because we have this money and we want to get it to the people,” she said. “It helps both the landlords and the tenants.” If there is no off-ramp and landlords all file evictions as soon as the moratorium ends, “the courts are overwhelmed and that’s not helpful.”
Providing adequate time for tenants to apply for help is needed because many behind-on-their rent tenants are living stressful lives and may not know yet that help is available. Under the state program, landlords can help tenants with the application process. “Landlords are getting nervous. Tenants are getting nervous. We just need that money flowing,” Dzeidzic said.
Jennifer Ho, the state housing commissioner who is involved in working group meetings on the off-ramp bill, said Thursday she is hopeful for a resolution. But Ho acknowledged that negotiations are complicated by years of landlord-tenant politics in the Legislature. She said the solution could be to treat the bill as a once-in-a-century response to a once-in-a century health crisis. “Even needing an off-ramp to an eviction moratorium is a situation unlike — hopefully — anything else. And to be able to do it with hundreds of millions of dollars of federal cash, you know, ‘Yay,’” Ho said. “The question is whether we can find some compromises for this unique situation that maybe we couldn’t find compromises on for all time.”