Preventing Evictions as Moratorium Protections Phase Out
Minnesota’s eviction moratorium – put in place to prevent renters from losing their homes in the wake of COVID-19 instability – is phasing out, and a major protection is now lifted. This month, for the first time since March 2020, renters can be evicted for nonpayment of rent unless they have pending applications for COVID-19 rent assistance. According to PolicyLink’s September analysis of US Census Pulse Survey data, 58,000 Minnesota households were behind on rent payments and could be at risk of eviction, 53% of whom are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Preventing evictions is key to preserving long-term housing stability and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Using pandemic learnings, Family Housing Fund and our partners are expanding our approach to eviction prevention to meet the urgent needs of this moment and help as many families as possible stay in their homes.
Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch.
For years, FHFund has worked with many partners to lay the groundwork of an eviction prevention system that is now proving critical. We partnered with the Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota County Courts to implement Court process changes and co-locate legal, financial, mediation, and social services onsite at Court (Housing Clinics) during eviction hearings. At the same time, FHFund worked to address the root causes of eviction ahead of filings and Court hearings. We explored innovations to emergency financial assistance programs and expanded access to mediation and legal resources in community settings across Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota Counties. We’ve also worked to proactively address habitability concerns that are sometimes at the root of eviction cases.
Lessons learned during the pandemic so far
When the pandemic temporarily closed the Courts and prompted the statewide eviction moratorium last year, the Housing Clinic model provided our partners with a method to stay in touch with renters who fell behind on their rent and were at risk of instability. Housing Clinic partners shifted to providing remote consultations, focused on helping renters navigate the new financial resources that became available. When Courts re-opened in September 2020 and began allowing some eviction cases, the Housing Clinics coordinated with the Courts to provide services ahead of remote eviction hearings. This allowed partners in Anoka and Dakota Counties to pilot the Housing Clinic model with fewer, yet more complex cases; with this experience and strong relationships with each other, they are better prepared for the end of the eviction moratorium.
The shift to remote eviction hearings has presented new opportunities and challenges for the Housing Court Clinic model. Remote hearings are easier for some renters to attend, as they are less likely to need to take time from work or find childcare. However, they also require access to technology, which can be a barrier to come vulnerable households. Mediators report that seeing each other in their homes via Zoom meetings can help renters and landlords understand the context of each other’s stories, which is important for successful mediation. At the same time, collaboration between the Clinic partners can be more difficult in Zoom settings, and referrals, or “transfer of trust,” to another Clinic partner may not be as smooth as it was onsite at Court. FHFund and our partners continue to work closely with the Courts to improve these processes, as well as identify other moratorium offramp procedures that effectively reduce evictions and should be made permanent.
We have also learned about the importance of helping renters navigate and obtain financial assistance, as several new assistance programs have been created throughout the pandemic. Resolving renters’ financial emergencies is the most effective way of protecting housing stability and preventing evictions, but many renters have difficulty submitting applications for assistance. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Housing Clinic partners have focused on helping renters apply for various assistance programs. Mediation and social service partners have been increasingly working in community settings to inform renters and landlords about assistance options. With historic levels of rent assistance dollars now available, FHFund and each of our partners are helping renters and landlords work together to apply for assistance and avoid evictions.
Now that evictions can be filed for nonpayment of rent, we know there will be an increase in eviction cases at Court. Even if eviction defendants have pending applications for assistance (and therefore should still be protected under the moratorium), they must appear at their hearings and provide proof of their pending application in order to avoid eviction. The Housing Clinics are now helping renters determine whether they have pending assistance applications, provide necessary documentation, and help renters and landlords submit assistance applications during Court calendars. We are also expanding our reach to Scott and Carver Counties, where legal services for renters are now available during Court hearings.
Early warning systems now allow us to intervene ahead of Court.
While the Court Clinics are critical for preventing evictions, we know it is necessary to intervene earlier, before Court, to proactively resolve housing emergencies before evictions are filed. Now, for the first time, there are multiple methods of identifying households who are at risk of eviction before they arrive at Court. Through COVID-19 rent assistance programs, housing system partners can see which households have in-progress applications for help but have not yet received assistance. In effect, these programs alert the housing system of individual households in crisis, providing early warnings of potential eviction cases.
FHFund specifically has a unique opportunity to take advantage of these early warning systems. We have been working with HousingLink and five local jurisdictions (Hennepin, Dakota, and Ramsey Counties and the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul) to administer emergency rent assistance dollars through the Zero Balance Project. In this program, landlords initiate the application process on behalf of their tenants and provide most of the required documents in order to ease the burden on renters. Before the application can be submitted, renters are required to provide some additional information and consent. Currently, there are many applications that were begun by landlords and have been awaiting completion from renters for weeks or months. This is effectively a list of renters who are at imminent risk of eviction, but whose landlords have demonstrated a desire to continue leasing to them if rent arrears are paid. This information offers a unique opportunity to intervene, help households complete assistance applications, and stabilize housing for these families before an eviction action is even filed. With many partners, FHFund is exploring opportunities to conduct outreach to these families and provide application support.
Pending RentHelpMN application information also provides an opportunity to prevent evictions before there is a Court hearing. With increased coordination between Courts and RentHelpMN field partners, we can cross-reference eviction filing information with pending assistance applications to identify households who are already protected from eviction under the moratorium. In such cases, it may be possible to avoid an eviction hearing altogether.
Additionally, with the launch of the Housing Clinics, Courts began providing eviction hearing schedules to Clinic partners in advance. Using these schedules, we have a window of time to reach out to renters, help them apply for assistance if they have not already, and remind them to attend their eviction hearing.
We are currently focused on using these opportunities to meet the urgent housing stability needs of this moment, but we also strive to embed early warning practices into long-term emergency financial assistance and eviction prevention systems. In addition to process changes and coordination with assistance programs in the Courts, FHFund has learned that it is critical to have two entry points to emergency assistance programs – one for renters and one for landlords. Landlords tend to be the first to know when a renter household is struggling to pay housing costs and therefore can play an important role in alerting support systems early. Through the Zero Balance Project, property owners and managers are demonstrating a willingness to find a solution that avoids eviction, and they are reaching out to renters to work together on assistance applications. Incorporating a landlord-initiated application process into longstanding and future housing assistance programs will help build out the early warning systems that are now proving critical.
There is still much work to do.
These are challenging times for families, communities, and our housing system, but an eviction wave is not inevitable. We have been building a comprehensive eviction prevention system for years. Now, like never before, there is ample rent assistance available and we can identify many of the families who are in need. Our region has the resources, groundwork, and partnerships necessary to stabilize housing for thousands of families. Working together with Courts, Counties, lawyers, mediators, social workers, assistance programs and their field partners, we can ensure that families do not lose their homes in the wake of COVID-19. As we rise to meet the urgent needs of this moment, we hope to learn, grow, and build a stronger housing system for the future.