Asad Aliweyd said his phone rings 300 to 400 times per day at the New American Development Center on Eat Street, as the organization helps administer millions in state and county emergency housing payments.
“First of all, your landlord cannot evict you,” Aliweyd told one caller in October. “We will send an email to them this afternoon. We will tell them your application has been approved.”
Renters can’t be evicted for nonpayment through at least Dec. 31 under an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an executive order up for renewal every 30 days from Gov. Tim Walz. But the rent is still due.
Among surveyed Minnesota renters, 83.1% are current on payments and 12.7% are behind, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey taken Oct. 14-26.
“To me, it’s a real tragedy that there are a lot of these rent assistance programs that are out there that are going unspent,” said Luke Grundman, managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, speaking at an October webinar hosted by HOME Line. “That’s a lot of money that, if it could get spent, [could prevent] a zero sum game, where … the landlord can get seven months of rent and a tenant doesn’t need to go into a homeless shelter or sleep in a car in the midst of a pandemic while infection rates are still increasing all the time.”
Emergency rent and mortgage assistance includes $100 million from the state and $21 million from Hennepin County. So far, the state has disbursed about $30 million and the county has disbursed about $5.8 million. An interactive map shows where Hennepin County’s assistance has gone so far: More than $25,000 distributed within a two-block radius of Lake & Grand, for example, more than $60,000 near Franklin & Nicollet, nearly $13,000 in the blocks surrounding Mueller Park, more than $17,000 near 38th & Nicollet and more than $8,000 near Lake & Dean Parkway. The state’s deadline to apply for funds is Dec. 30.
Assistant property manager Wiley Koehler expected to see an uptick in nonpayment when the extra $600 unemployment payments expired in July, but so far he hasn’t seen it.
“It’s better than we expected,” he said, explaining that At Home Apartments is making deferred payment plans and not charging late fees. “Most people are either on track or at least have been in communication with us and we’ve come to some sort of plan or agreement.”
In “normal” times, eviction filings in Hennepin County average 500 per month, typically more than 90% due to nonpayment, according to HOME Line. During the pandemic, filings are down to about 30 per month, according to Legal Aid.
Evictions can still proceed under a few exceptions, including endangering other residents, illegal activity, significant property damage and a landlord or family member’s need to move in.
The most common eviction filing now relates to endangering the safety of others, leading to nearly 50 complaints in Hennepin County between late March and mid-October, according to HOME Line. That’s followed by illegal activity on the premises, most often drug use, which accounted for more than 30 filings. Specific incidents like shootings and graphic fights have almost always resulted in successful evictions, while more vague complaints like “verbal violence” have been dismissed.
The standard of proof for criminal activity is lower in civil cases, so a landlord can win a case even if a tenant hasn’t been convicted of a crime. Legal Aid attorneys said allegations of illegal drug use still need to be proven through evidence like first-hand testimony, photos, documents and police reports, and some of those cases have been dismissed.
Pandemic-era rental market
Apartment vacancy is noticeably higher than this time last year, Koehler said, and not just in Uptown, where At Home Apartments is offering specials like the first month free. People are moving out at normal rates, he said, but there have been fewer inquiries for new leases.
Southwest Minneapolis’ third quarter vacancy rate is up from 2.9% in 2019 to 3.4% in 2020, according to Maxfield Research. Average rent is $1,328, a 0.2% increase over last year indicating to Maxfield that rent growth has slowed substantially.
President Mary Bujold said she expects to see more vacancies as new Southwest apartments open in the next 12 months. New arrivals include more than 300 units at Daymark Uptown at the Sons of Norway site on Lake Street, which is offering up to two months free for long-term leases.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs recently studied how new apartment construction impacts neighborhood rents. Research has long shown that new market-rate housing can result in more affordable housing in the long run, but less is understood about the impact in the short-term, states the working paper. Rents rose throughout Minneapolis from 2000-18. But in the cheapest buildings near new market-rate construction, rent grew 6.6% more than buildings 300-800 meters away. And rent at the most expensive buildings near new construction grew 3.2% slower than buildings slightly further away. The strongest impacts were found closest to new construction (roughly within a four-minute walking distance), persisting for at least two years. Most construction evaluated in the study took place between 2015 and 2017, so longer-term effects aren’t fully known yet.
“If new market-rate apartment construction is leading to higher rents for lower-cost housing, we believe it is crucial to develop policies that both encourage housing supply growth while also protecting existing low-income communities from higher housing costs and displacement,” states the paper.
The city is trying a new strategy to tackle displacement. Whittier neighborhood residents are among the Minneapolitans who will get top priority for new affordable housing under a policy approved by the City Council on Oct. 30. The “community preference” policy aims to counter displacement in neighborhoods where housing costs are rising rapidly, including North Minneapolis and parts of the Northeast, Phillips and Powderhorn communities. For example, current Whittier residents and people who lost Whittier homes during the foreclosure crisis dating back to 2007 would get first priority for half the units in a new project that takes local or federal funds. The policy currently applies to owner-occupied housing projects on city land or developed with city funds, with plans to expand to rental housing next year.
“This is a huge deal,” Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) said at a recent committee meeting.
Similar policies enacted in New York and San Francisco have been challenged under the Fair Housing Act. So Minneapolis commissioned a study to help ensure that the new guidelines would not perpetuate segregation or hurt a protected class of people.
North Side and former South Uptown resident Owen Duckworth, a member of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Anti-Displacement Policy Network team that recommended the policy, said it won’t dramatically change the landscape.
“But there’s something powerful about this recognition of past harm, especially done to communities of color,” he said. “Here’s a preference for you, here’s an opportunity for you to return to a neighborhood or to a community that you’ve been displaced from against your will. It’s not insignificant.”
Duckworth said he worries about residents feeling pressure to move out, knowing they could be evicted as soon as the moratorium ends.
“We don’t want to just postpone a wave of evictions; we need to prevent them,” he said.
Aliweyd was upset to see one father respond to a landlord’s threatening letter by moving out along with his child, even though the law protected them from eviction and even though they were eligible for emergency rent money.
“Landlords can’t go to court [for nonpayment], but they’re still sending threatening letters,” Aliweyd said.
The Aliveness Project is also helping clients apply for emergency funds. But they’re finding several clients aren’t eligible because they are couch hopping or aren’t in the right income bracket. Affordable housing was a crisis before the pandemic, staff said, and some clients have been living in encampments because they aren’t eligible to live in hotel rooms provided by Hennepin County and can’t fit into shelters with limited capacity.
HOME Line Housing Attorney Andrea Palumbo said she tells residents facing eviction to negotiate with their landlords as much as possible.
“The worst thing in the world you can do, really, is just hide from your landlord and dread the inevitable. It’s really important and it goes a long way to be as proactive as you can,” she said.
For information about emergency housing assistance through Hennepin County, visit hennepin.us/rent-help.
For information about emergency housing assistance through the state of Minnesota, visit housinghelpmn.org.