When Gov. Tim Walz declared an extension of Minnesota’s COVID-19 peacetime state of emergency Friday, he added another 30 days to a moratorium that should keep rental property residents with a roof overhead, regardless of their ability to make the rent, at least for now.

The moratorium has remained in effect since March, and it prohibits evictions in all but the most egregious of circumstances, such as when tenants break the law, engage in activities that endanger others or purposefully cause property damage.

But the protective order doesn’t absolve renters of their responsibility to pay their landlords. In other words, the meter continues to run, and when the moratorium is eventually lifted, bills will come due.

The state moratorium is layered on top of a federal moratorium on evictions that has been extended until the end of March. But the Minnesota moratorium provides a more robust level of protection, in the eyes of Rachel Albertson, development and communications manager for the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota.

“Minnesota is in a better place on this than many other states,” she said.

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But a number of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, continue to challenge Walz’s authority to repeatedly extend Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency, including the moratorium on evictions, without first obtaining legislative approval.

Should the state moratorium lapse, tenants would see reduced protections, as Jackie Kemp, education and counseling director for One Roof Community Housing, also acknowledged.

“Even if our statewide ban, for some reason, is not renewed or it’s successfully challenged, it’s likely there will still be this federal ban in play that then tenants could still potentially rely upon. It’s just that that ban is very different functionally. The statewide eviction ban is a bit more far-reaching than the federal one. It’s not just related to COVID. No filings for eviction can happen at all, unless they meet the criteria of these pretty narrow exceptions, involving bad actors,” she said.

Ben Van Tassel, manager of Duluth’s planning and economic development division, said: “The moratoriums both at the state and federal level have been critical in terms of keeping people housed during the pandemic.”

He noted that forcing people out of their homes while many are in self-quarantine and the coronavirus is still actively spreading would likely only worsen an already dire public health crisis.

“Yet we know at some point the moratoriums will likely end, and there will be some situations where it puts people in a tough spot, especially for people who have lost income and haven’t been able to keep up with rent,” Van Tassel said.

Unmet needs

People had until Dec. 7 to apply for help making the rent through Minnesota’s COVID Housing Assistance Program, called CHAP for short.

One Roof helped 318 households apply for CHAP aid, and the Salvation Army and Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency combined to help about a few hundred more access assistance.

In all, more than 38,000 Minnesotans applied for $100 million in available CHAP aid.

But Barbara Montee, head of the Duluth Landlord Association, noted that tenants had to seek the rent repayment funds. While landlords could encourage people who were behind on their rent to apply, they were unable to access the assistance without tenants taking the initiative.

In Montee’s experience most tenants are eager to do the right thing, but not all.

“The tenant must go after it. And if you’ve already got a bad relationship, why would your tenant go after the money?” she asked, saying, “They don’t care.”

Montee said the eviction moratorium has emboldened some, describing how she recently paid a difficult tenant $2,000 just to voluntarily leave her property, in light of the challenge of seeking to evict him with the current pandemic rules in place.

“Bad news tenants are just getting more bad news by it,” she said of the moratorium.

“It’s lose-lose,” said Jill Keppers, executive director of the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority. “I feel for these small landlords out there. They still have mortgage payments to make, and I’m not aware of any funding yet that goes directly to landlords, where they could submit documentation to prove they haven’t been paid, to help them.”

Kemp agreed there has been plenty of pain to go around.

“A pandemic does not discriminate. I think all of us are feeling it in some way or another. And while the eviction moratoriums do provide what I consider necessary protections for very vulnerable tenants, it doesn’t mean that it’s not also causing issues for landlords or that there’s not a flipside, because not all landlords can sustain a prolonged period of not collecting rent, especially some of the smaller landlords, and I think in our community we have more mom-and-pop landlords, who don’t necessarily have a huge portfolio of properties,” she said.

Unintended consequences

Kemp speculated that many tenants who likely would have qualified for CHAP aid didn’t apply. The program was available to households with incomes as much as three times the federal poverty rate.

“When there’s an eviction ban in place, it’s hard to know if everyone felt the sense of urgency to tap into that resource when it was available,” she said. “And even the ones that did, they might still yet be falling behind again in the coming months.”

“So, I’m very hopeful that we’ll have another program like that. I don’t know exactly what it will be. But in the most recent stimulus package that was passed, they did set aside money that was to go to states to provide rental assistance,” Kemp said. “I’m not sure exactly when that will be available, but I’m hoping it will be sooner rather than later.”

Van Tassel said the city is tracking the situation and is working through the Minnesota Housing Agency to gain access to its share of another $350 million in federal emergency rental assistance funding that could help people catch up with rent and utilities.

In all likelihood, however, Van Tassel said the need will outstrip public assistance resources, and he expects local organizations to play a large role in helping tenants and landlords come to terms with outstanding debts, as the pandemic eventually comes under control.

Even though there are multiple ways to access assistance, people who live in public housing could face tougher times ahead, too, according to Keppers.

“The Housing Authority has a special grant using CARES (Corona Aid Relief and Economic Security) Act funding to help public housing residents pay for back arrears in rent and utilities, if the reason they’re behind is because of COVID-19,” she said, noting that the loss of a job, a reduction in hours or needing to care for children could all qualify a household for aid.

“It can’t just be someone who’s taking advantage of the moratorium and saying, ‘Not paying my rent. Can’t evict me.’ Because that is happening, as well, and those folks will all of a sudden be in for a rude awakening when the moratorium lifts. So, I worry about that,” Keppers said.

People living in public housing are expected to dedicate no more than 30% of their income to rent. At the properties the Duluth HRA manages, Keppers said a number of tenants have nevertheless fallen behind, with total missed rent and utility payments now north of $136,500 and mounting.

Yet, she said much of the available assistance has gone untapped.

“As for the money we have at the HRA, we’ve actually had a hard time getting people to utilize it, and I’m not sure why that is,” Keppers said. “I think maybe it’s because they don’t have a sense of urgency yet.”

“We hope this second push that we’re doing will get some more applicants, because it really has been difficult to get that money spent,” Keppers said.

More challenges to come

Albertson stressed the importance of relief beginning to flow to cover pandemic back rent debts. Unless the situation is addressed, she predicts serious trouble when the eviction moratorium is lifted. “If we don’t do something, there will be an absolute flood of evictions for nonpayment of rent,” she said.

Kemp agreed on the need for more aid, saying: “The moratoriums on their own don’t fix a community-wide problem. So, the best case would be if we can get some programs to help those tenants pay their rent, and then the landlords will be in a better spot, too.”

Meanwhile, the sense of anxiety in the local housing community continues to build.

“It’s kind of a weird feeling, like we’re just waiting for the floodgates to burst open pretty much,” Kemp said.