Mediators tackle fast-paced evictions

Tierra Peterson, a Housing Court project coordinator at the Volunteer Lawyers Network (l), talks with a woman who declined to print her name and sought to expunge an eviction from her record.

Christopher Mendez delayed paying rent on his Lyndale neighborhood apartment, just to see what would happen. Rent was due on the 1st of the month. He came home from work on the 6th to find a notice on his door: If he didn’t pay in 24 hours, an eviction would be filed.

“My heart stopped when I saw that notice,” said Mendez, who quickly paid up. “… Every time I come in the building I am very aware of the notices on doors around the 6th and 7th.”

Mendez works with Community Mediation & Restorative Services on a pilot project aiming to mediate potential evictions before they are filed in court. The Hennepin County pilot, which involves the local Conflict Resolution Center at Hennepin & Colfax, comes at a time when the City of Minneapolis is exploring ways to reduce eviction filings. A 2016 city report found that out of more than 3,000 evictions filed in Minneapolis each year, 93 percent are filed for nonpayment of rent. Those tenants are behind two months and $2,000 on average. Two-thirds of the cases end in displacement.

“While this is a complex challenge with no one solution, I am fully convinced that dramatically reducing evictions in Minneapolis is possible,” said Zoe Thiel, a city Innovations Team program manager, speaking in February to the city’s new housing policy committee.

As part of the county pilot program, NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center in North Minneapolis offers referrals for mediation, legal help and cash assistance. A state task force is also digging into the issue. And attorneys from Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network offer free advice, recently securing more funding for full representation.

Pro bono counsel Larry McDonough, Kristen Nelson and Laurie Swansen (l to r) meet with low-income tenants and landlords prior to Housing Court eviction hearings March 28.
Pro bono counsel Larry McDonough, Kristen Nelson and Laurie Swansen (l to r) meet with low-income tenants and landlords prior to Housing Court eviction hearings March 28.

On a recent Housing Court date, Referee Mark Labine urged everyone to go out into the hall and try to work out deals with their landlords. One tenant faced eviction after falling behind by about $470. Labine said all he could do was give her one more week to pay. He suggested she reach out to NorthPoint.

“Let’s see what you can do,” he said.

The evicted

Minneapolis sees a concentration of evictions in Stevens Square, but North Minneapolis is hardest hit, where the city reports that 45-48 percent of households received an eviction filing in a three-year period. Thiel noted the figure is based on a census estimate of renter households, and some families may have received multiple filings.

“That said, presuming this estimate is in the ballpark, it’s a staggering figure,” Thiel said.

Source: City of Minneapolis
Source: City of Minneapolis

Most of the people with eviction filings in Hennepin County are poor minority women, according to a county survey completed last summer. The monthly average rent was $1,006, and the average income was $1,778.

Evictions 2
Source: City of Minneapolis

Brittany Lewis, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, is in the process of interviewing at least 100 people impacted by evictions. So far, she’s heard from women who turned money over to boyfriends, realizing too late that money wasn’t going to rent. She talked to victims of domestic violence. She interviewed one man whose building was condemned, and he checked himself into the psych ward rather than return to homelessness. She talked to couch-hoppers living in tense situations where they’re overstaying their welcome.

“Most often, the question of choice is an illusion,” she said. “You need a roof, especially if you have children. … We’re in a gentrifying city.”

At Housing Court last week, Ross Taylor said he’s been through a lot since leaving a good insurance job in Chicago and moving to Minneapolis to care for his late mother. The move into his current apartment wiped out his savings, which required two months’ rent in addition to a security deposit. He recently broke his ankle, couldn’t work, and fell behind, he said.

“Right now in our society and our economy, one accident can be your downfall,” he said.

Tenants trying to pay their way out of an eviction filing typically reimburse more than $300 in legal costs, in addition to overdue rent and late fees. With an eviction on record — even an eviction filing that was later resolved — they face higher damage deposits and fewer apartments open to them, mediators said.

Hennepin County provides emergency assistance funds that will cover rent, but it can take up to a month for those funds to come through, and the county sifts through 10,000 or more applications each year, according to Lisa Thornquist, an administrative manager with the county Office to End Homelessness. Eviction cases, meanwhile, can wrap up within two weeks.

“What happens is the eviction process plays out twice as fast,” said M.J. Bauer, executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center.

“There are very few types of court cases that advance with the speed that evictions do,” said Larry McDonough, who supervises a pro bono clinic at Housing Court and has worked in landlord-tenant litigation since 1983.

He said the local eviction process is among the fastest in the country.

To help address the issue, the NorthPoint pilot offers quick cash assistance, with funds available within days. Those funds only apply prior to an eviction filing, however, and staff urge tenants to reach out the moment they think they won’t make rent.

By the end of an afternoon in Housing Court, Taylor had connected with his landlord, who was “very willing” to work with him. He secured emergency assistance funds from Hennepin County to cover the rent, and Taylor was optimistic. He advises other renters to prepare for the worst, and not be afraid to communicate when they get into trouble.

“This takes a load off,” he said.

The landlord perspective

Cecil Smith, chair of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, said more study is needed to boil the eviction problem down to definable, solvable issues. He said court fees to evict are already high, and he wants to see the details of any city proposal that might have unintended consequences.

“For many owners and managers, it’s a point of last resort,” he said. “…You can’t not collect the rent. … Nobody opens a grocery store and says here, come and help yourself.”

Ten property owners filed more than 25 percent of the city’s evictions in 2015, according to the City of Minneapolis, which listed them by name in a report.

Most large management companies have policies to evict based on days past due or a specific dollar amount in arrears, while “mom and pop” filings are more varied, explained Brian Hage of the Landlord Resource Network. Based in the CARAG neighborhood, Hage developed and launched software in January 2017 to streamline eviction filings. He advises landlords to consider flexible payment arrangements with tenants facing eviction.

“It is often financially imprudent for landlords to be too strict or look to have the tenant removed without considering the costs of eviction, tenant history, vacancy rates, turnover costs, and other market trends,” he said in an email.

Heidi Pliam, a landlord, business consultant and volunteer mediator, said she’s worked with landlords that sank everything they have into their properties and can hardly afford repairs themselves. An eviction can mean several thousand dollars in losses, she said.

“In screening people they hope to never have to evict,” she said. “But if they’re not evicting as fast as they can, they won’t survive. … I’ve seen landlords go into foreclosure because they’re too afraid, they feel so badly and don’t want to evict.”

Pliam personally launched a GoFundMe campaign for her Northeast Minneapolis tenant who lost his restaurant job and couldn’t make rent.

“I knew his story, and it was a heartbreaker,” she said.

Energized by the fundraiser, the tenant found a new job and worked out a payment plan. That worked for about six months until he faced another setback. He decided to take a backpack and go homeless, with a plan to save enough money to buy a property up north.

Pliam said true mediation can work, because it can get to the heart of tenants’ challenges and keep evictions off their records. But the process to secure emergency assistance funds and attend housing court can be daunting for people facing major challenges, Pliam said.

“People go homeless because they can’t muster the ability to put their paperwork together,” she said. “…The landlord cannot be expected to bridge the gap.”

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority files the highest number of evictions in the city, though it owns more than three times the units of other large “frequent filers” in city data. The MPHA offers more leeway with late payments than is typical, staff said. More than 2,500 public housing residents paid late at least once in 2017, with some late more than four times, according to MPHA. Of those, 271 people were served an eviction filing, and 56 were evicted.

“Eviction is always a last resort,” said Jeff Horwich, director of policy and external affairs.

MPHA staff is recommending changes in state law, meeting with city officials, considering more mediation and internally analyzing data to decide where to focus efforts.

“We care about this issue a lot,” Horwich said. “We’re completely on board.”

Evictions 1
Source: City of Minneapolis

The intervention

Mediators are calling landlords across the city, asking them to consider waiting an extra couple of days to try mediation before filing an eviction.

Bauer points to city stats that show mediated landlord-tenant agreements are successful 75 percent of the time, and less likely to result in eviction.

“When you get a landlord and a tenant together and they reach their own solution, they’re much more likely to abide by those solutions,” said Dawn Zugay, volunteer manager at the Conflict Resolution Center.

The Eviction Representation Project, a joint effort between Legal Aid and the VolunteerLawyers Network, has secured additional funding that more than doubles the attorneys on hand at Housing Court.

“Let’s go to where the need is, rather than hope that people call us before their hearing,” said Luke Grundman, Legal Aid managing attorney.

As most people in Housing Court are there for the first time, Grundman said he hopes that intervention will keep tenants eviction-free for good.

McDonough said he’d like to see new laws require landlords to give a modest five- or 10-day warning to tenants, so tenants have time to act before an eviction is ever filed. He would also like to see legal procedures change so that tenants don’t have to deposit rent money in court to allege habitability problems.

Council Members Lisa Bender and Jeremiah Ellison are exploring new renter protections, and Ellison along with Council Members Cam Gordon and Phillipe Cunningham are studying how the police department interacts with landlords to ensure there are no unintended consequences for renters.

City staff recommend focusing efforts on high-eviction properties, particularly those with high levels of housing code violations. Staff noted that New York City guarantees legal representation to every tenant facing eviction. Another idea would automatically expunge an eviction record when a case is dismissed.

“No city appears to have figured it all out, but there are opportunities to learn about promising practices as evictions and displacement are rising in the national conversation about housing,” Thiel said.

Tierra Peterson, a Housing Court project coordinator at the Volunteer Lawyers Network, talks with a woman seeking to expunge an eviction from her record. The woman, who declined to print her name, said she is staying at a shelter, and she needs the eviction off her record to land a new apartment.
Tierra Peterson, a Housing Court project coordinator at the Volunteer Lawyers Network (at left), talks with a woman seeking to expunge an eviction from her record. The woman, who declined to print her name, said she is staying at a shelter, and she needs the eviction off her record to land a new apartment.