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How many people will face eviction when state moratorium ends?

Preparations are being made to address an anticipated backlog as some federal support remains uncertain.

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Matik Management Chief Operating Officer Michelle Hill Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

It's unclear how many Olmsted County residents could see eviction notices if the state’s moratorium ends on Aug. 12 as planned.

Michelle Hill’s experience indicates the numbers could be lower than some expect. Among the 700 rental units her company, Matik Management, oversees, only three tenants have refused to pay any rent in recent months.

She said about 5% have had trouble but have reached agreements to pay a portion of the monthly expense, which could help them avoid eviction notices.

“From the very get-go, we contacted our tenants and said send us (information on) what you are receiving, and let’s work on a plan together,” she said, adding that other renters have been released from leases after finding other housing options.

DIVERSION PLAN IN PLACE

At the same time, attorneys who represent tenants in eviction court say they’ve been hearing that landlords could flood courts with paperwork as soon as the moratorium is lifted.

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“We do know there are some landlords that are chomping at the bit,” said Karen Fairbairn Nath, executive director of Legal Assistance of Olmsted County. “They haven’t been paid, and they can’t file an eviction.”

Fairbairn Nath said she understands the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit both sides of the issue.

“Landlords need to be paid, and tenants need housing,” she said. “It’s a very challenging time for everyone now.”

She said that’s why it’s important for tenants to understand they still owe rent, even though they can't be evicted during the moratorium.

To seek common ground and work through issues, Legal Assistance of Olmsted County and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services have created an eviction diversion program, with the hope of keeping as many people housed as possible.

“This is sort of an offshoot of the eviction clinic,” Fairbairn Nath said of the program, which the two agencies operate with Lutheran Social Services when courts are operating as normal.

TWENTY-FIVE CASES A WEEK

Once the moratorium is lifted, normal operations are likely to take a while to return.

Travis Ohly, an attorney of several local landlords, estimates a backlog of 200 to 300 eviction cases exist, with most landlords holding onto paperwork. He said some cases involve more than nonpayment of rent, which can complicate efforts to reach agreements.

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The number compares to the slightly more than 500 eviction cases Legal Assistance of Olmsted County reported were filed last year.

To handle the backlog, 25 first appearances are expected to be scheduled in eviction court each Monday. They will be handled online, with judges deciding which cases go first.

The first appearances will provide the opportunity for landlords and tenants to work with attorneys to work out a potential settlement. Representation by attorneys from Legal Assistance of Olmsted County or Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services can be arranged by contacting the diversion program at 507-292-0080.

“It’s really a win-win situation if we can get a person caught up and make arrangements without an eviction being filed, because if an eviction is filed, then they have an eviction on their record. And if an eviction is filed, a landlord is going to spend $400 out of their pocket to file the eviction,” said Brian Lipford, an attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

Fairbairn Nath said the workload will be steep.

“Twenty-five cases a week far exceeds anything that has been handled in Olmsted County before,” she said.

Ohly estimates the court sees 20 cases filed on a busy week.

MORE SUPPORT SOUGHT

Both sides said the potential eviction backlog could increase as federal unemployment support lapses and businesses close due to pandemic challenges.

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“There are going to be a whole lot of folks unemployed now that (the Paycheck Protection Program) is gone,” Ohly said..

To help address the need, Olmsted County has applied for $2 million out of $100 million in federal support sent to Minnesota to support housing needs.

Corrine Erickson, director of Olmsted County Family Support and Assistance, said the goal will be to boost the county’s emergency assistance funds, with the ability to reach more people with the funds provided through the federal CARES Act. She said she expects to hear Monday whether the funds will be available, with the hope for the program to start by mid-August.

The added funds would also transition county support from the rental assistance program established by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority in May. With $600,000 available, County Housing Director Dave Dunn said the program saw about 50 applications when announced, but additional requests have trickled in.

“It makes sense that we sort of move it out of just being about rental assistance, because people’s needs could be rent, utilities, it could be something else,” Erickson said of moving the program to her department, which also handles food assistance and other support services. “When people apply, we want to look at everything. … We want to braid it all together.”

She said the goal is to provide certainty in the upcoming months.

However, uncertainty continues to exist in the courts, where attorneys are making plans to be back in court within a month, even though the date could change.

“Emergency orders are changing daily all over the country, so who knows what the future holds,” Ohly said.

NEED HELP?

Anyone facing eviction when the state moratorium ends can contact Legal Assistance of Olmsted County and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services through their eviction diversion program at 507-292-0080.

Staff from the two agencies provide legal representation to qualified applicants, but they can also provide resources to help avoid receiving an eviction notice.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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