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Tenant rights in the era of covid-19

By Andrea Palumbo and Karmen McQuitty


Do you remember what you thought when you realized the magnitude of the covid-19 pandemic? Did you worry about whether you’d be able to pay your rent or mortgage? Or that you would suffer financially? For millions of people the financial impact was, and continues to be, a significant result of this pandemic. For renters in particular, the pandemic has presented unique challenges—both in paying rent and seeking relief under current (and future) leases. 

The law governing landlords and tenants is codified in Minnesota statutes and city ordinances. Evictions are one part of landlord/tenant law, and certainly the most contentious. An average of 17,000 evictions are filed every year in Minnesota.1 Hennepin and Ramsey counties account for the lion’s share of filings and more than a third of the evictions in the state. Evictions can be filed for nonpayment of rent, breach of the lease, or holding over after a notice to vacate. The majority of cases filed are against tenants who have not paid rent under their lease. 

By design, most eviction cases move quickly. Minnesota law requires that the first appearance in a case occur between seven and 14 days after a summons is issued.2 Expedited cases, brought on the basis that a renter is causing a nuisance, engaging in illegal activity, or endangering the safety of other residents or the landlord’s property, move even faster. These are summary proceedings and a tenant’s first appearance is often their only appearance in the case. 

Evictions in the era of covid-19

The coronavirus outbreak brought the eviction process to a screeching halt. On March 23, 2020, Gov. Tim Walz signed Executive Order 20-14 placing a moratorium on evictions.3 Minnesota is one of few states with such an order in place. The order was intended to forestall the inevitable eviction cases that were to come and, by stabilizing housing, to protect public health and safety.  

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) federal stimulus package was passed in response to covid-19 on March 27, 2020. Among its many provisions, the Act includes a moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent for tenants living in many types of subsidized housing.4 Additionally, the Act prohibits fees and penalties related to nonpayment of rent.  Finally, tenants may not be evicted for 30 days after the end of the moratorium, and must be given 30 days’ notice. The CARES Act tenant protection provisions extend until July 24, 2020.

The immediate effect of both of these actions was to put the brakes on filing evictions for most types of cases. The category of cases that must start and finish within 14 days are in limbo. The only cases being heard by the courts right now are cases involving allegations that the tenant seriously endangers the safety of others or engages in illegal activity.5 The executive order also suspended most lease terminations and the execution of most writs of recovery (orders requiring a tenant to move). 

When businesses started closing due to the pandemic, employees began losing their jobs—severely impairing their ability to pay their rent. Although the order relieves the risk of eviction for most tenants for the time being,6 the governor’s order does not relieve a tenant’s obligation to pay rent. This has created a conundrum in which a tenant must pay rent but cannot be evicted if they do not. It is unprecedented. And what lies ahead is unknown. We do not know what will happen to evictions cases filed prior to Order 20-14, cases filed after, or those that will be filed when the order is lifted. 

Other significant issues affecting renters

Strictly speaking, the threat of eviction is not meant to be a tool to compel tenants to pay rent, and landlords may pursue additional tools to manage tenants who owe rent. Landlords often report tenants who do not pay rent to collections companies, which significantly affects a tenant’s credit and ability to rent in the future. No court proceeding is required when reporting a tenant to collections, so it’s often less expensive for landlords than bringing an eviction action in court. Currently, no order or statute exists to prevent landlords from reporting renters to collections or even to credit bureaus as a result of covid-19 hardship. Though a renter will not lose their home during this pandemic, the financial impacts for inability to pay rent are significant and persistent. Low-income people and people of color in Minnesota rent in high numbers7 and will continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Many renters worry about how to pay rent for apartments or houses they occupy. A portion of the renting population in Minnesota consists of college and university students. There are nearly 425,0008 college and university students in the state, and while not all are renters, a large portion are. A further subset of these renters are paying rent for spaces they no longer inhabit. Many people who attend Minnesota colleges and universities live in off-campus housing near campus. Only a subset of students actually live on campus in university-provided housing. Colleges and universities throughout the state are abiding by Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home orders, and have closed campuses and/or reduced campus operations. Learning is occurring remotely and campus services are largely being delivered online. 

Students who rent, just like most renters in Minnesota, enter into year-long leases. Often, students who rent near their college campus are locked into 12-month leases that extend August to August. Many of these renters are now seeking relief from paying rent for the duration of their current lease, and are looking to cancel leases they have signed for the 2020-21 academic year. Whether colleges and universities across Minnesota will resume in-person instruction for fall 2020 remains one of many unknowns as this article is written.

As with other residential leases, students are bound by the language of the contract, and force majeure clauses do not allow for cancellation of leases due to coronavirus. Those students who chose to leave their off-campus apartment or house to stay with others during the pandemic are paying rent for places they are no longer live in. This compounds the financial strain on them and their families, who may be affected by layoffs, furloughs, or other factors associated with the nationwide effects of the pandemic. Many young renters rely on their families for financial support, and families are strained. Additionally, rents throughout the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, average $700-1,300 per month per person. In these uncertain times, it’s understandable why some people struggle with the idea of paying for an apartment in which they are not living. A lease is often one of the first legal contracts they enter into, compounding the confusion.

Little relief is being granted by landlords, who are admittedly experiencing their own set of challenges. In our experience, most landlords in the Twin Cities are not negotiating with students or their attorneys to change the termination date or agree to early buy-out or rent reduction. If they do offer relief, it is often by waiving late fees or allowing rent to be paid at a later date—an empty gesture because for many the issue is not when rent is due, but their ability to pay it at all. 

No federal, state, or local government has issued specific relief for renters in the form of a moratorium on rent payments. While the CARES Act9 gave trillions to small businesses and a one-time check to individuals, most young people—including college students—were excluded from receiving the $1,200 stimulus check. Further, parents are often guarantors on their children’s leases. They are faced with the impossible decision of stopping rent payments to save April-August rent, or being reported to a collection agency. 

A just path forward

One path under consideration is to provide relief for renters through local legislation in the form of a moratorium on rent payments, or, in the alternative, a fund specifically designated for those struggling to pay their rent due to coronavirus. As of the date this article was submitted, both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature have bills designed to assist renters and homeowners.10 Grassroots calls for a rent strike have circulated on social media since the beginning of the pandemic. Such calls, and organizing, will only gather momentum the longer the crisis continues. A rent strike, whether by choice or necessity, will only further harm landlords and the economy. Creating a viable path for renters to stay in their homes will create healthier people, communities, and economies. 


ANDREA PALUMBO  joined HOME Line in 2019. She advises tenants on their rights in housing court proceedings, including eviction defenses, rest escrow actions, security deposit disputes, and emergency tenant remedy actions. Prior to working at HOME Line Andrea was a volunteer coordinator for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, where she coordinated and staffed the Ramsey District Court housing clinic. 

KARMEN MCQUITTY is a senior staff attorney at the University of Minnesota Student Legal Service. She specializes in criminal defense, expungement, harassment/cyber stalking, and landlord/tenant law. She is adjunct faculty at Mitchell Hamline and the University of MN Leadership Minor.


Notes

1 Minnesota eviction numbers see dramatic decline in past decade, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2/17/2020.

2 Minn. Stat. 504B.311 Subd. 1.

3 Exec. Order No. Walz Executive Order 20-14 (3/23/2020). https://mn.gov/governor/assets/EO%2020-14%20Filed_tcm1055-424508.pdf 

4 The CARES Act applies to properties that participates in a “covered housing program” as defined by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), rural housing voucher programs under section 542 of the Housing Act of 1949, properties with federally backed mortgage loans or federally backed multifamily mortgage loans. 

5 Minn. Stat. 504B.171 Subd. 1.

6 As of the date of this article, the MN Attorney General’s Office has sued three landlords for evicting tenants despite the Executive Order. https://www.ag.state.mn.us/Office/Communications/2020/04/17_LaPlant.asp 

7 https://www.hocmn.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Patterson-Presentation.pdf 

8 https://www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=945 

9 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, S.F. 3548 (March 2020). https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3548/text?q=product+update 

10 House Bill HF4541 allocates $100 million to prevent homelessness and would restrict evictions and foreclosures during the current and any additional coronavirus-related peacetime emergency declared before 1/15/2021. SF4495 allocates $30 million for housing assistance, stop foreclosures for 60 days, and bar evictions until 6/24/2020. The Senate Agriculture & Housing Finance Committee discussed the bill but did not vote on it. MSBA Capital and Court Connection 4/24/2020.