Equity in Place: “There’s still time to stop the eviction epidemic”

Authored by Owen Duckworth, Alliance Director of Policy and Organizing, on behalf of Equity in Place, the following commentary was published in the Star Tribune on July 28, 2020

Governor Must Focus on Preventing, Not Postponing, Devastating Wave of Evictions

With the crisis inflamed by COVID-19, our current housing diagnosis is dire. The health and economic stresses of the global pandemic have created the conditions for a catastrophic wave of evictions.

Gov. Tim Walz and his administration have taken unprecedented steps to stop the spread of COVID. We need the same approach to the threatened epidemic of evictions. It’s time for the governor and state legislators to lead on bold, proactive steps that prevent, not simply postpone, the loss of housing for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans.

While this month’s announcement of $100 million in state rental assistance was worthy of coverage, the media missed the real headline: This pot of money, while important, will be nowhere near the amount required to meet the overwhelming needs of people who are unable to pay rent. And the governor disappointingly rolled back aspects of the eviction moratorium that has protected thousands of families from being forced out of their homes.

Unfortunately, it’s no secret who’s been putting pressure on the governor and Legislature to scale back the much needed protections for renters, which are standing between us and a massive housing and public health disaster.

For months, the Minnesota Multi Housing Association (MHA) has been minimizing the severity of economic impacts of COVID on renters while simultaneously elevating the most extreme anecdotes and manufacturing hypotheticals to vilify renters. Absurdly masquerading as advocates for their tenants, the evictions lobby has pressured the administration to scale back protections for renters at a time when they are most vulnerable and need increased resources and rights (“No-eviction order makes housing unsafe,” July 10).

Even under the current moratorium, the state attorney general’s office has received more than 1,000 eviction complaints from renters, indicating that landlords are already trying to find loopholes to get rid of tenants for nonpayment of rent in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. Once Executive Order 20-79 goes into effect next week, we can expect that number to increase significantly.

As increased federal unemployment benefits expire at the end of this week, the already tenuous situation for thousands of renter households will become untenable. New data released last week by Stout, a global advisory firm, projects 197,000 Minnesota renter households will be unable to pay rent, leading to 133,000 potential eviction filings over the next four months.

That’s more than 13 times the number we’d see in a typical year. Meanwhile, members of MHA leadership have received at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars through the Payment Protection Program, supposedly to support operations, even as they continue to lobby for increased evictions.

Despite the simplistic mantra, we are not all in the same COVID boat. Landlords and property owners hold exponentially more power than renters in our housing “market.” People of color are vastly more likely to be renters than white households. Recent unemployment data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development show that, since March, a staggering 48% of the Black workforce has applied for unemployment, compared with 22% of the white workforce — compounding the fact that the majority of renter households of color were paying more than they could afford for housing before the economic collapse.

So it’s no surprise that, according to the July 22 Household Pulse Survey, more than 78% of Minnesota’s African American renters said they have no or only slight confidence that they’ll be able to pay their rent next month, compared with less than 13% of white renter households.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd and the uprisings in our region, the Walz administration has stated a commitment to racial equity and justice. As a state with the largest disparities in homeownership, that commitment must interrupt the cycles of housing injustice that have scarred our communities for generations.

The epidemic of evictions isn’t hypothetical; we’ve already seen the wave begin to crest in states like Ohio, where one county is processing so many eviction cases a day (100) that it is forced to use the convention center as a makeshift courthouse to allow for social distancing. As Minnesota’s moratorium is weakened or lifted, courts will be flooded with cases. Landlords and their attorneys will seek to move quickly and tenants, who already too often lack legal representation, will be swept away in the current of a system that already preferences property owners.

To survive this pandemic, we need state leaders to prioritize the housing and health needs of renters across the state by maintaining the eviction moratorium through the COVID crisis and provide significantly more resources for emergency rental assistance. And to cure chronic housing inequity, we need systemic changes that put power and ownership in the hands of tenants, not private landlords.