Minnesota landlord charged over eviction attempt during pandemic

Jared Goyette in Minneapolis
Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Authorities in Minnesota have pressed charges against a landlord who evicted a tenant during the coronavirus crisis and thus violated a state order forbidding kicking people out of their homes as the pandemic spreads across the US.

The move is one of the strongest actions yet taken to guard vulnerable people against the threat of eviction as unemployment in the US soars to levels not seen since the Great Recession in the wake of the economic crisis caused by the virus as widespread shutdowns cover the US.

Related: 'This is about survival': California tenants plan rent strikes as Covid-19 relief falls short

Numerous cities and states have deployed eviction moratoriums. Among them is Minnesota, one of 15 states and territories to suspend both the enforcement of evictions and the filing of them in court, according to a tracker on new eviction policies being maintained by a professor at Columbia University.

Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, worked with Governor Tim Walz to craft the state’s executive order suspending evictions. Landlords have so far been supportive, including the state’s biggest landlord advocacy group, the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

But last week, in a case that was one of the first of its kind across the country, Ellison’s office pressed charges against a small landlord, Howard Mostad of rural Pine county, for violating the executive order against evictions.

According to the complaint filed in court, Mostad had advised his tenants, a family of three with a four-year-old daughter, that their lease was ending on 1 April, but as the date approached, they had trouble finding a new place because of the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s “stay-at-home” order.

Mostad then allegedly showed up at their door on 2 April, and asked to be let in so he could show the property to a potential buyer. The family refused, saying they feared letting new people into their home, as their daughter has a pre-existing medical condition making her more vulnerable to the virus. Mostad responded by forcing his way in and then removing circuit breakers in the boiler room, leaving the family without electricity, heat or hot water, the complaint says.

Ellison said that while he understood many landlords were in a difficult situation, he thought Mostad’s actions were “particularly heartless” and he hoped the state would be sending a message by pressing charges. He said that forcing people into homeless shelters would increase the risk for public health.

“We want to encourage small business people, including landlords, to seek help when they need it. But understand that by putting people out into the street, what they’re doing is not only hurting a family, but they’re actually exposing all of us to potential transmission,” Ellison told the Guardian.

When reached by the Guardian, Mostad, 77, said that the family was not behind on rent, but that he had been planning to sell his farm, including the home where they lived, as business had been tough for several years.

In an interview, he lashed out against undocumented immigrants, refugees and Black Lives Matter activists, and what he sees as government overreach in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“What’s happening with the coronavirus shutdown is a communist takeover,” he said.

Mostad now faces up to $25,000 in fines. Ellison said while his office would continue to enforce the eviction moratorium, he worries about what will happen when the order is lifted, and called for action at the federal level.

“We’re going to need a way to figure out how to deal with the rent that eventually will come due for people who have been out of work through no fault of their own. We need a societal response to that, we need a national response to that,” he said.

Ellison’s fear is shared by Alieza Durana, a writer with the Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to mapping and understanding eviction causes and trends across the country.

She described a patchwork of different approaches across the country.

She noted that California had attempted to address the problem Ellison described by creating a six-month window in which tenants will be able to pay back rent. However, like several other states, California’s eviction moratorium also allows for “local discretion”, meaning cities in different parts of the state could interpret it differently. That, she said, could potentially leave residents in suburban and rural areas without strong tenant-rights organizations more vulnerable.

Evictions continue meanwhile, in states such as Alabama and Oklahoma, where 1,156 evictions have been filed since 15 March, according to Open Justice Oklahoma.

“The legal advocates that I’ve been speaking to have become very concerned that if we do not close these loopholes, the court system is going to receive an onslaught of eviction notices once the state of emergency is lifted,” she said.

Durana cited a survey published by the Federal Reserve last year indicating four in 10 Americans would have difficulty covering an unexpected $400 expense.

“So given that that was true prior to the pandemic, there’s a very real possibility that moving forward, without government intervention, we could see the return of greater numbers of homelessness across the United States, and other types of hardship,” she said.