Eviction uncertainty lingers in Olmsted County

·5 min read

Jul. 23—Olmsted County's eviction court docket is empty Monday as the first post-moratorium cases are being filed.

"I think we are not completely sure how many evictions are out there, but we have a general impression that there are a lot of them," said Karen Fairbairn Nath, executive director of Legal Assistance of Olmsted County.

While the numbers are unknown, lingering restrictions at the state level are likely to create a trickle of new filings, rather than a gush.

Landlords have been able to seek evictions related to safety concerns during the pandemic, but new cases for lease violations can be filed and were expected to be seen in court Monday, with up to 20 weekly slots reserved for eviction hearings.

The new cases cannot be solely based on the lack of rent payment, so Rochester attorney Travis Ohly said the number is likely to remain low.

"The material breach has to be of a significant nature," he said of cases that are successful in court.

Evidence of drug use, smoking violations or noise nuisance can be part of the cases, but he said lack of payment is typically easier to prove.

State guidelines for coming out of the eviction moratorium mean landlords cannot use the lack of rent payment to terminate a lease until Aug. 13, and eviction for nonpayment is not authorized until Sept. 12.

More restrictions will be lifted Oct. 12, but evictions will see some pandemic-related limits through June 1, 2022.

Olmsted County District Court Referee Gail Baker said local landlords are being notified that they can adjust some pre-pandemic cases that were put on hold, but it's unclear how many might have been resolved in recent months.

The plan Baker worked out with local attorneys to restrict the number of weekly cases in Olmsted County has been in place for more than a year, along with encouragement for deferring potential evictions by working with attorneys, landlords and agencies to find ways to ensure rents are covered.

"I see it as a win-win situation for everybody," Baker said of such programs, which could limit the number of cases that enter the courtroom.

Last year, Olmsted County was able to distribute $2.1 million to help nearly 1,100 households, according to Corrine Erickson, director of Olmsted County Family Support and Assistance. Additional funds covered some mortgage payments and other housing-related expenses for people struggling with pandemic impacts.

It included $1.5 million to landlords to cover tenants' unpaid rent through the end of the year, as well as $370,000 in utility payments.

While a portion of the funds came through the county's annual emergency assistance program, Erickson said the bulk of the help was provided through funds the county received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and state's Coronavirus Housing Assistance Program.

The same level of support isn't available through the county this year, since emergency assistance is dedicated to helping people who struggle to pay rent for a month or two, rather than longer periods.

However, the state's eviction guidelines require landlords to direct tenants to the state's RentHelpMN program before they will be able to seek an eviction based on nonpayment of rent.

So far, Olmsted County residents have submitted 1,114 applications, seeking nearly $5.4 million in rent payments, according to Minnesota Housing.

Three Rivers Community Action, a field partner for the state program, has provided navigators to help more than 115 Olmsted County residents apply for rental assistance.

The program, which restricts evictions during the review process, could cover rent payments for up to 15 months, depending on circumstances, for households earning 80 percent of the area median income or less. That means a family of four with an income of nearly $80,000 could qualify to have the state send rent payments to their landlord.

Ohly said the system isn't perfect, since it requires cooperation by the tenants, who typically need to apply for the assistance.

"If somebody doesn't respond to your texts, calls or mail, it's hard to do much," he said.

Fairbairn Nath said she's also concerned people might overlook the need to participate, if they are served with paperwork calling them to court, since failure to show up means losing the case.

"It is very important for someone who has been served with the legal paperwork for eviction to show up at that appointed time," she said, noting that the hearings will be held online.

Legal Assistance of Olmsted County and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, as well as the county courthouse, offer access points to the online hearings, if people don't have access to the required technology.

Brian Lipford, senior leadership attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, said the state's rental assistance, along with the potential for legal assistance, should spur tenants to reach out and see what help is available.

"I would really encourage folks not to assume all hope is lost," he said.

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Where to seek help

— RentHelpMN: www.renthelpmn.org

— Three Rivers Community Action: www.threeriverscap.org or 507-316-0610

— Legal Assistance of Olmsted County: laocmn.org or 507-287-2036

— Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services: www.smrls.org or 1-888-575-2954

— Olmsted County rental assistance: www.olmstedcounty.gov/residents/services-individuals-families/housing/rental-assistance

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