Oct. 16—In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began shuttering schools and businesses and put millions of people out of work, Congress passed the CARES Act, which put a moratorium on eviction of tenants from rental properties that received federal funding or had federally-backed mortgages.
Forty-three states soon followed suit with their own bans on evictions, but many rescinded those actions within just a few months.
How impactful have these moratoriums been?
Sadly, that impact can be measured in lives saved — and lives lost. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that in the 27 states which chose to end their eviction moratoriums in 2020 (months before a vaccine was available), those decisions led to an additional 433,700 cases of COVID and 10,700 deaths nationwide. In other words, people in states with a lengthier eviction moratorium were more likely to stay home and stay safe as the pandemic raged.
Fortunately, Minnesota is among the states that opted to extend its ban. The so-called "eviction moratorium off-ramp," passed by the Minnesota Legislature in June, will gradually phase out tenants' protections by June 1, 2022 — but the devil is in the details.
Effective Oct. 12, Minnesota landlords are able to begin eviction proceedings against tenants who are behind on their rent and either haven't applied or have been denied assistance from the RentHelp program, which designated up to $518 million to keep renters in their homes.
So far, RentHelp has made more than 24,000 payments totaling more than $120 million, but many landlords and tenants are still waiting for help.
For tenants, the application process might be part of the problem. It's all online at www.renthelpmn.org, and tenants must upload copies of their lease, documentation of COVID-related financial hardship and proof of income eligibility. Before a tenant can even apply, they first must pass a pre-screening process and await verification that they are eligible.
While many of us might not bat an eye at such a procedure, it can be daunting for those who are elderly. Or for those whose first language isn't English. Or those who don't have a laptop computer or iPad with an internet connection. Or those who simply don't realize that such aid is available.
So now, landlords face a decision: Begin eviction proceedings, or help their tenants get through the application process for state assistance?
Frankly, the Oct. 12 deadline probably was a blessing, in that it has given tenants and landlords extra motivation to work together. Given a choice between evicting a tenant who owes six months of back rent or spending a few hours helping them do online paperwork, we expect most landlords will follow the latter course — especially since the process is working. Statewide, only 9% of completed RentHelp applications have been denied.
It takes time, but landlords are getting paid what they are owed.
That doesn't mean landlords haven't experienced hardships. They have. Not every landlord is a large company that owns hundreds of apartments. People who own a half-dozen homes as rental properties have had to make their mortgage payments, pay utility bills and do upkeep even as the pandemic raged and rental income lagged. For every renter who has been protected from eviction for unpaid rent, there's been a landlord who has taken a financial hit.
The good news is that so far, we aren't hearing about landlords who are losing properties to foreclosure due to the pandemic. Still, that possibility might be something that should be considered before the next crisis hits. When tenants are protected against eviction, their landlords should also be given some latitude as they wait for the state to work through the aid process.
But for now, we see Minnesota's rent assistance program — and the gradual process by which people are being weaned off of it — as a nationally unique success story that should someday be studied and emulated by other states.