Housing Is Healthcare: How Preventing Evictions Keeps People Alive

 By Joey Dobson

0321-Mother-comforting-daughterSky-high rents. Nonexistent rental vacancies. Thousands of families being evicted. Record numbers of people forced to sleep on the streets. Shelter bed shortage for those in need. Stark racial disparities in who had access to a healthy and stable home. This was the reality in Hennepin County a year ago.

Then came COVID-19.

Eviction Moratoria Save Lives

Before 2020, there were about 6,000 eviction cases filed in Hennepin County Housing Court each year. Only about 10 percent of those renter families were represented by a lawyer, usually from Legal Aid or the pro bono community, coordinated by the Volunteer Lawyers Network. Facing one of the fastest eviction court processes in the country without legal defense left thousands of families with no choice but to move out with nowhere else to go. 1

By March 2020, the coextensive economic crisis and public health emergency dealt body blows to Minnesota communities. On March 23, 2020, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order halting many eviction cases. 2 Other states across the country took similar action to keep people in their homes as we learned that the public health and related economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic would be widespread and devastating. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a moratorium on some eviction court cases nationwide. 3 This moratorium was initially effective through December 31, 2020, and was later extended through March 31, 2021. The state moratorium is extended alongside the extensions of EO 20-01, declaring the peacetime state of emergency. 

These partial moratoria on evictions have not only kept many families in their homes, they have saved lives. In issuing Executive Order 20-14, Governor Walz acknowledged that “Losing a home is catastrophic at any time, and during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency in particular, losing housing endangers the public peace, health, and safety of all Minnesotans. Public health and safety are promoted by stabilizing households which, through no fault of their own, may suddenly have the inability to afford rent.” 4 The federal moratorium issued by the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services—not the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—shows the recognition on the federal level of the health implications of evictions. “In the context of a pandemic, eviction moratoria—like quarantine, isolation, and social distancing—can be an effective public health measure utilized to prevent the spread of communicable disease.” 5

Stable housing is a public health issue. A recent study by public health experts and legal scholars estimates that nationwide, eviction moratoria saved approximately 38,730 lives through September 3, 2020. In Minnesota alone, 680 additional people would have died without the state eviction moratorium. 6 The time period for this study doesn’t include the frigid winter northland months, when people die at higher rates due to lack of shelter. Hypothermia can cause serious health consequences even at temperatures as high as 50 degrees. 7

According to epidemiologists, “When tenants are evicted, they often move in with other family members, increasing the size of households and the chance for viral transmission . . . a 1% eviction rate would result in a 5% to 10% higher incidence of infection, leading to approximately 1 death for every 60 evictions.” 8

Experts have demonstrated the health inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 and the role housing stability plays in keeping people healthy and safe: “Black people have had less confidence in their ability to pay rent and are dying at 2.1 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Indigenous Americans and Hispanic/Latinx people face an infection rate almost 3 times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Disproportionate rates of both COVID-19 and eviction in communities of color compound negative health effects and make eviction prevention a critical intervention to address racial health inequity. In light of the undisputed connection between eviction and health outcomes, eviction prevention, through moratoria and other supportive measures, is a key component of pandemic control strategies to mitigate COVID-19 spread and death.” 9

Families Are Still Getting Evicted: Moratorium Exceptions and Racial Disparities

Not all eviction cases are on pause. In Minnesota, the only way to legally remove a tenant from their home is by going through the court eviction process. 10 Unfortunately, some landlords circumvent the court system by illegally locking out or otherwise excluding renters from their homes. Legal Aid has represented over 30 tenants in Hennepin County in illegal lockout cases since the eviction moratorium was issued on March 23. And these are just the renters who knew to call a lawyer for help.

The moratorium as it exists now allows landlords to file eviction cases if they allege that a tenant is creating a public safety risk, causing damage to property, or if the landlord needs to move a family member into the property. 11 While these exceptions might seem narrow, they are in fact canyons that tenants without legal representation fall into. 

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are more likely to face eviction than white renters. 12 Based on a study of families facing eviction court in Hennepin County, 71% identify as BIPOC. More than half identify as Black or African American. 87% of families have a minor child in the home. At least one-third have a family member in the home who has a disability; 70% of families are households led by women.13

And, we know that BIPOC are more likely to be accused of criminal activity relative to actual commission rates. “Minnesota’s criminal justice system arrests, charges, tries and incarcerates people of color at rates that are disproportionate to those of white residents.” 14

Systemic racism and inequality show up in vast gaps in income and wealth for Black people in our local communities. Generations of oppression and discrimination have prevented people of color from owning homes and accumulating wealth in the form of real property. According to the Washington Post, “The typical black family in Minneapolis earns less than half as much as the typical white family in any given year. And homeownership among black people is one-third the rate of white families.” 15

These disparities are even worse in the Twin Cities than in most places nationwide. Just 25% of Black families in Minneapolis own their home, the lowest Black homeownership rate of any metro area in the U.S. with more than
1 million residents. 16

All of these factors mean the exceptions to the current eviction moratorium are more likely to be used against renters of color. And exceptions are certainly being used, despite a common narrative that evictions have not been happening during the pandemic. Case numbers jumped dramatically after the amended executive order with added exceptions was issued in September. While landlords filed about 20 eviction cases in Hennepin County in July 2020, that number jumped to 36 evictions in November 2020. In just one week in December (December 14–December 18), 31 eviction first-appearance hearings were scheduled in Hennepin County Housing Court. While the court does not maintain data on racial identity of eviction defendants, our housing lawyers at Legal Aid are representing many of these defendants, and our clients are disproportionately BIPOC.

While there is not yet a right to counsel for eviction cases, Legal Aid and volunteer lawyers through the Volunteer Lawyers Network seek to represent every tenant family who faces eviction in housing court. When we represent them, families win or settle 96% of the time. Most leave court with clear eviction records. Those without any legal services win or settle only 62% of the time. 17

Evictions lead to homelessness. Homelessness is a dire health hazard for everyone who experiences it, and a death sentence for far too many. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made our housing emergency worse. Access to legal counsel is just one of many areas where policy change could make a critical difference. Advocates and policymakers who prioritize safe, affordable, healthy housing are engaged at many community levels to address the housing crisis. Proposals at the city, county, state, and federal level are needed now more than ever to help keep our neighbors housed—and alive.


Joey Dobson is the housing policy attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. She has represented tenants facing eviction and other legal housing issues. She advocates for policy changes to improve the health, safety, and dignity of renters in Hennepin County.  


Notes

1 According to a 50-state study from 2019, Minnesota is tied for the third-fastest eviction court process in the country. “New Nevada Law to Give Tenants Facing Eviction More Time to Pay Rent” — VIDEO | Las Vegas Review-Journal.

2 Executive Order 20-14.

3 85 Fed. Reg. 55292 (Sept. 4, 2020).

4 Executive Order 20-14.

5 85 Fed. Reg. 55292 (Sept. 4, 2020).

6 Kathryn M. Leifheit et al., Expiring Eviction Moratoriums and COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality (Nov. 30, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3739576 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3739576

7 “Hypothermia and Cold Temperature Exposure,” Michigan Medicine uofmhealth.org

8 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-22/landlords-launch-legal-attack-on-cdc-eviction-ban

9 Benfer, E.A., D. Vlahov, M.Y. Long et al. “Eviction, Health Inequity, and the Spread of COVID-19: Housing Policy as a Primary Pandemic Mitigation Strategy,” J Urban Health (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00502-1

10 Minn. Stat. § 504B.375.

11 Executive Order 20-79.

12 Brittany Lewis, “The Illusion of Choice: Evictions and Profit in North Minneapolis” (2019). http://evictions.cura.umn.edu/illusion-choice-evictions-and-profit-north-minneapolis-full-report [https://perma.cc/X36S-FD36] (reporting landlords disproportionately file evictions against Black women). 

13 Luke Grundman and Muria Kruger, Legal Representation in Evictions — Comparative Study 1 (2018), https://www.minnpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Eviction-Representation-Results-Study-with-logos.pdf [https://perma.cc/RT8A-4LZ4].

14 “In Minnesota Racial Gap Law Enforcement Plays Key Role” twincities.com

15 “Racial Inequality in Minneapolis Is among the Worst in the Nation,” The Washington Post, 5/30/2020.

16 “ Black Homeownership Rates in Twin Cities Are among the Lowest in the U.S.” MPR News 12 /20/2018; “Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Salt Lake City Have the Lowest Black Homeownership Rate in the U.S.” redfin news 6/29/2020.

71 Grundman and  Kruger, supra note xiii.