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Unpacking the sweeping tenant rights changes made by the Minnesota Legislature

Contained in the Judiciary and Public Safety omnibus bill are 16 pages of changes ranging from a ban on landlords requiring pets to be declawed and devocalized to making it easier to expunge past evictions from court records.

Portland Avenue apartment building, St. Paul
With divided government, changes could only come from “peace in the valley” deals between landlord groups and tenant advocates. Trifectas meant the rental owners and managers were not included in the final product.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

So much sweeping legislation passed during the 2023 session of the Minnesota Legislature that descriptions that would normally seem like exaggerations are now common – and likely accurate. 

Here’s the tenant advocates’ version, via the nonprofit organization HOME Line: Laws passed and signed last month are “the most substantial change in Minnesota tenant/landlord law in a single session of the Legislature in the 165-year history of the state.”

It is another manifestation of the DFL trifecta — the election victories that gave the party control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office. 

With divided government, changes could only come from “peace in the valley” deals between landlord groups and tenant advocates. Trifectas meant the rental owners and managers were not included in the final product. A DFL trifecta meant that changes pushed for a decade or more all passed in a single session.

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Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis, took the lead on the issue in the House with Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, running the issue in the Senate. Agbaje said her interest preceded her election in 2020 to when she was a law student at Harvard. There, she worked in a law aid clinic with an emphasis on tenant issues.

When she returned to the state, Agbaje said she was certain that Minnesota’s tenant protections would be stronger than those in Massachusetts.

“They were not,” she said. “In fact, they were way behind what people in other states take for granted.” After rereading the list of law changes passed this session, Agbaje said there were some she had forgotten were included.

From a press conference announcing the House and Senate DFL housing agenda, from left: House Housing Committee Chair Mike Howard, Senate Housing Committee Chair Lindsey Port, and state Rep. Esther Agbaje.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Rep. Esther Agbaje, right, had, while attending Harvard, worked at a law aid clinic with an emphasis on tenant issues and was certain that Minnesota’s tenant protections would be stronger than those in Massachusetts: “They were not.”
“What it does is set the groundwork for us in Minnesota to ensure that people are living in dignified housing, that they have the right to privacy in their homes and they have the right to hold their landlords accountable,” she said. 

“These are extremely comprehensive changes in tenant-landlord laws that will impact every renter and every landlord in the state,” said HOME Line executive director Eric Hauge during a Wednesday webinar.  The nonprofit that provides legal advice to renters via its hotline (612-728-5767) lobbied for the changes along with other advocates, including the Homes for All Coalition.

“This was a historic year at the Legislature,” said Michael Dahl, HOME Line’s lobbyist. “There’s been an imbalance of power and there will continue to be but we tilted the scales just a bit more in the direction toward fairness at the legal level for tenants.”

Most of the changes were triggered by the most-frequent questions and concerns raised by renters who called the hotline, Dahl said.

Contained in the Judiciary and Public Safety omnibus bill are 16 pages of changes ranging from a ban on landlords requiring pets to be declawed and devocalized to making it easier to expunge past evictions from court records. Most of the new provisions do not take effect until Jan. 1, 2024.

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Among the changes:

  • Landlords statewide must give tenants 14 days written notice before filing an eviction action for non-payment of rent, but cities are allowed to require even longer pre-eviction notices.
  • Eviction notices are to be removed from court records if the tenant prevails, the case is dismissed, the parties agree to do so or if the eviction is more than three years old. Currently those records remain public for seven years.
  • Rental owners and managers must include non-optional fees on the first page of the lease as well as in advertisements of rental units.
  • Owners and managers who want to enter a unit must give 24-hour notice, give a specific window of time and only enter between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., unless the tenant agrees otherwise. The fine for violating the notice rule increases from $100 to $500. Current law requires only “reasonable” notice.
  • An expanded list of repairs that must be made quickly to include broken refrigerators, air conditioners, serious infestations and non-working elevators.
  • A minimum temperature of 68 degrees in winter if the tenant doesn’t control the thermostat
  • Leases can be ended for medical reasons as determined by a medical professional.
  • A ban on managers and owners requiring declawing or devocalizing of animals if animals are allowed.
  • Limits on when evictions can result from criminal conduct by tenants or family members off the property.
  • A requirement that building managers tell renters that they are allowed to request inspections before occupying a unit and upon move out to help resolve disputes over damage deposits. This issue was pushed by University of Minnesota students who said loss of deposits is a significant issue around campuses.

Another provision praised by HOME Line and other renter advocates came in the taxes bill. It would change how the state’s rental tax credit is processed. Before, renters had to send a separate application form in August. It can now be included in state income tax filings in April.

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The change for renters with household income of $69,520 or less is expected to bring so many more eligible renters into the program that the Legislature had to set aside $190 million to cover the increased costs of credits for 100,000 additional claimants.

The rental credit is refundable, which means that it can reduce the tax bill of people who owe taxes but also be paid to tax filers who owe no taxes.

Dahl said evictions have grown to the No. 1 issue on the phone lines, a result of the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium. There were more than 20,000 eviction filings in Minnesota last year. But Minnesota is one of just four states that doesn’t require written notice before evictions are filed with the court — notice that gives tenants a chance to remedy the lack of payment before a filing happens. 

Expungement of eviction filings, even those that don’t result in court findings in favor of landlords, has been a long-time issue for tenant groups. Having evictions on the court records make it difficult to find new housing. Most of the burdens fall on single mothers with children, especially African American women.

Agbaje said expungement was her top concern because of how it makes it difficult to find housing, even for people who prevailed in housing court. The filings of eviction notices are public and are reported to landlords by companies that cull those records.

“We want to let people know that you could have gotten into a bad situation, maybe you got down on your luck financially and you did get evicted. That’s not something that is going to stay with you for seven-plus years,” Agbaje said.

“Nobody would have designed the current system we have, where people are penalized so severely for so long.” said HOME Line’s managing attorney Mike Vraa. Around 90% of evictions are for not paying rent, which can be caused by job loss or illness or abandonment by a domestic partner. The next landlord looks at those records first when deciding whether to rent to someone.

“Not on purpose, not intentionally, but as a society in Minnesota, we have created an eviction underclass of renters,” Vraa said. “This is trying to fix that.”

The one provision sought by renter advocates that wasn’t adopted was language to prohibit property owners from rejecting tenants using federal Section 8 or other vouchers, including a first-ever state voucher program passed this year that would cover rent for up to 5,000 state residents who don’t qualify for Section 8. 

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Section 8 vouchers are provided to eligible renters with payments usually made directly to building managers, but the program has been capped, resulting in a long waiting list. Some building owners do not accept the vouchers, citing red tape and other requirements. Minneapolis, however, passed an ordinance in 2017 that prohibits the refusal to rent based on method of payment and successfully defended it against lawsuits.

Making “source of income” discrimination illegal statewide was not included in the judiciary omnibus bill.

“We got really close. Heartbreakingly close,” said Agbaje, who called it “a backdoor to discrimination” that she will work on next session.

Cecil Smith
Cecil Smith
Cecil Smith is the president and CEO of Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents rental housing owners and managers with a majority of its members having 20 or fewer units. Smith said the reason the changes this year seem so sweeping is that previously, divided legislatures — along with the tenant advocates and property owners — weren’t able to come to agreements on any sweeping changes. 

“These law changes are what the tenant advocates have been seeking for a number of years,” he said. “With the DFL trifecta they got a substantial portion of what they were seeking.”

Overall, Smith said the amendments to landlord-tenant law “are some things that codify best practices that good operators do. And bad operators will do what bad operators do and ignore the law. I’m not sure how much this changes. It probably gives some new tools for enforcement, but it doesn’t target the bad actors.”

Of the list of changes, Smith said many could have been improved with the involvement of his association. One example is the requirement that units be heated to at least 68 degrees but without designating which portions of the unit. Does it include garages or three-season porches? 

“These were issues that were raised but never addressed” by legislators, Smith said. 

Smith said most landlords and managers give eviction notices to tenants after they’ve failed to pay rent for two months. But the new 14-day notice ahead of an eviction filing is longer than is common, and Smith said it could lead landlords to move to eviction sooner.

When the pandemic eviction moratorium was being phased out, a written 14-day notice of evictions was required but was not permanent.

The so-called crime-free-lease provisions are troubling to building owners and managers, because they are unclear and could endanger other tenants and managers, Smith said. Only if off-premises conduct equates to “a crime of violence against another tenant, the tenant’s guests, the landlord or the landlord’s employees” – whether a crime was charged or not – can evictions proceed, the new law says. Any conviction of a crime of violence can also lead to evictions.

“We’re not in the business of evicting people. We’re in the business of renting apartments,” Smith said. “So it’s a big decision when we decide somebody’s not welcome anymore. It’s usually serious. I don’t hear of people getting evicted because they have a DWI or were caught shoplifting.”

Whether court records are expunged or not recorded at all is a decision of the courts, not the Legislature, Smith argued. And while tenant advocates make the point that evictions make it difficult for people to rent their next units, owners need some way of knowing whether tenants are going to pay the rent.

“We think it’s problematic from a tenant selection point of view,” Smith said. “There’s a certain logic to our reasoning as to why this is a relevant piece of information.” It will also deny policy makers information about when and where evictions are happening and how prevalent they are. “We won’t have any data,” Smith said. 

Yet, after all that, Smith said the 2023 session was –  on-balance – good for building owners and managers because of the billion dollars invested in affordable housing, rental assistance, state rental vouchers and down-payment assistance. There is also a first-ever dedicated source of income for affordable housing via the seven-county 0.25 percent sales tax increase.

“We came away feeling very positive at the end of the day,” Smith said. “There are some things that we might not like much, but between all the new investment and mostly reasonable changes in landlord-tenant law, we can adapt.”