A Hennepin County tenant whose landlord filed for eviction this month likely won’t know if he’ll be evicted from his home until mid-winter due to a huge court backlog.
What was previously a roughly 20-day process skyrocketed this summer amid a huge spike in eviction filings when the pandemic-related eviction moratorium was lifted.
“Normally, evictions are never this slow. It’s just the volume. It’s been the busiest two months on record,” said Rachael Sterling, housing lawyer and communications coordinator for HOME Line , a non-profit organization for the rights of tenants.
This leaves tenants and landlords in a state of uncertainty for months.
Delays aren’t all bad news for tenants, though. This could mean more time to gather the money needed to pay off rent, apply for financial assistance, or explore legal options. But that’s only helpful if the tenant is actually aware that the eviction has been filed, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed by state law.
Hennepin County, which has the highest number of eviction cases in the state, has seen the most dramatic increase in the time between an eviction case and a judgment or even a first hearing. By June, the average time had increased to about two and a half months. In August, it was more than four months.
Other counties are seeing less severe increases. The average time in Ramsey County is about two and a half months. In Anoka County, it’s about six weeks.
A spokesperson for the Fourth Judicial District, which covers Hennepin County, said the court plans to schedule more hearings per week starting next month. However, he declined to comment further on the backlog, saying staff members needed more time to assess trends.
The statewide eviction moratorium, which was introduced in the first month of the pandemic, was lifted in June, prompting a deluge of eviction petitions in state courts. More than 2,000 cases were filed statewide each month of the summer. Before the pandemic, there would be an average of 1,300 eviction requests per month.
The number of new filings has slowed somewhat in recent weeks, but it will take months for the courts to clear the backlog.
“The whole system is under pressure. The legal aid system is overwhelmed, the justice system is overwhelmed. The financial aid programs are overwhelmed. The shelters are full. There are no places to go. “Sterling said.
For landlords, court delays mean more months go by during which they do not receive rent for occupied units. According to Angie French, vice president of Mid Continent Management Corp., a property management company, some landlords are struggling to make mortgage payments on their properties or cover utility costs.
“The resulting economic impact is substantial,” French said.
For tenants facing eviction, however, longer wait times for hearings may be preferable to the quick turnarounds that were normal before 2020.
“We were working in a broken system before the pandemic,” said Mary Kaczorek, chief counsel for the housing unit of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which provides legal assistance to evictees.
Kaczorek described a rushed process before the pandemic where tenants and landlords would be summoned to court for mass hearings and tenants had little time to find legal representation, seek financial assistance or negotiate with their landlords.
“Having more time is good because it allows people to stay housed while they have time to connect with resources to help maintain their housing or catch up. [on rent]”, said Kaczorek.
A 51-year-old Richfield woman who received an eviction notice in July will not appear in court until October 5. But it means the woman, who asked not to be named over fears it could affect her eviction proceedings, has time to cobble together the more than $8,000 she owes her landlord.
“I knew getting help would take time, so time is on my side,” she said.
As a full-time Uber and Lyft driver, the woman said, her income plummeted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and she could no longer pay rent. She requested emergency aid through the state, but it never came through.
In early September, she received $2,500 from the Salvation Army and said she was awaiting news of another housing assistance program. She plans to keep working and hopefully scrape together enough money to pay off what she owes before her court date.
“I feel so good that court day is that date,” she said. “I might have to be here 17-18 hours a day, but that’s okay.”
PRISM, a nonprofit that connects families to resources, has been inundated with calls from evictees. Last month, they received 250 calls, well above the usual 50 or 60 before the pandemic. Bridget Glass, a PRISM worker who helps people find accommodation, said tenants can find themselves in a bad spot if they don’t have “someone in their corner”.
“A lot of times the landlord will win the battle and the tenant will just submit to whatever is going on there,” Glass said.
In order to receive legal or other help, however, a tenant must know that an eviction has been filed against them. The state does not require landlords to notify tenants before filing an eviction petition, although Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center and St. Louis Park have passed local laws requiring notifications.
Under state law, tenants are only required to be notified after the court issues a summons, which must occur seven to 14 days before a hearing.
With hearings in Hennepin County scheduled for more than 120 days, months could pass before a tenant learns of their eviction. And rent is still due for the months until the hearing, which for a tenant who can’t pay means even more debt.
HOME Line runs a program called the Eviction Prevention Project which aims to notify tenants as soon as an eviction is filed. Staff members review court records daily and send letters to tenants with new eviction records notifying them of the filing and advising them of legal and financial resources.
“In some situations, our letter gets to them before they get anything from the court. This may be the first time they’ve heard of the eviction,” Sterling said.
The Hennepin County Housing Court is also trying to improve eviction notices. The court has begun sending letters to all parties involved in an eviction with information about its eviction prevention program, which directs tenants to legal and financial resources. Letters are sent before a formal summons is issued.
Regardless of how they learn an eviction is pending against them, the stakes are high for the growing number of renters in Minnesota facing the prospect of losing their homes.
“An eviction has a very lasting and negative impact on people,” Sterling said. “Once you have an eviction on your record, it’s almost impossible to find housing.”
Writer Katelyn Vue contributed to this story.
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