Before March 2020, renters facing an eviction summons who wanted to defend themselves or clear their record made a trip to the Hennepin County Housing Court. Upon arrival for first appearance, a tenant would find a hallway crowded with up to 45 families facing eviction. Landlords and property managers were there with their lawyers.
The Eviction Representation Project (ERP) was on the scene, staffed by Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN). Housing defense lawyers couldn’t help everyone, and many renters faced the housing referee with no legal advice or representation. Landlords were not required to give notice before filing, so even if the allegations were false, the eviction appeared on the tenant’s housing record.
That world changed with the eviction moratorium. For over a year, tenants could only be evicted for endangerment of others, significant property damage, or committing certain crimes. Landlords had to give written notice at least seven days before filing. All first appearances were virtual, and the court saw only 10 cases per calendar, twice a week.
Throughout the moratorium, Legal Aid met with coalition partners HOME Line, Housing Justice Center, VLN, and others to coordinate efforts and advocate for tenant protections during and after the moratorium. They adapted strategies to Zoom court with the necessary technology and procedures, preparing for the battle they knew was coming.
“It’s been a beautiful collaboration to get our legal arguments together,” says Mary Kaczorek, supervising attorney of Legal Aid’s Housing Unit. “We’ve been gearing up for the onslaught of post-moratorium evictions, both internally and with our community partners.”
Legal assistant Alisha Bowen developed automation processes to improve the efficiency of operations at virtual hearings. She set up remote technology at Legal Aid’s Minneapolis office and in the Hennepin County Government Center so clients lacking internet access can contact a lawyer and make their remote appearance from the courthouse.
Staff attorney Joey Dobson advocated for policy changes and updated pleadings with defenses based on the rollout of the eviction moratorium, adjusting analysis under the CARES Act and moratorium off-ramp legislation. Staff attorney Colleen Kelly mastered an understanding of the different rental assistance pots available from the state, county, and tenant resource centers. Support staff learned to screen potential clients and prepare documents during first appearance Zoom court sessions. Housing attorneys made the adjustment to remote advocacy.
The Eviction Defense Screening Project is a new way for local attorneys to plug into Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Project. Attorneys and law students pre-screen cases for possible defenses. They send their findings to Legal Aid and VLN attorneys, who review the facts and (virtually) accompany the tenant to their first appearance. This pre-screening streamlines the process, allowing more ERP attorneys to represent tenants.
Legal Aid’s 2017 eviction study showed that tenants with legal representation were twice as likely to stay in their homes, and 95% left without an eviction record from the case. For those without representation, only 6% left with a clean record.
The eviction moratorium off-ramp began June 30. July 14 allowed evictions for material breach of lease. The week of July 26 saw a tripling of eviction cases, with three added first-appearance calendars. Numbers are increasing each week. By mid-October, all eviction restrictions will be lifted, with the exception of tenants who have pending rental assistance applications.
“The eviction moratorium gave proof of concept on slowing the eviction process and pre-filing notice requirements for landlords,” Kaczorek says. “We’d hoped for more tenant protections built into the post-moratorium legislation. We’ll do all we can to meet the challenges and keep renters safe and housed with clean records.”
Attorneys or law students interested in helping with the eviction defense effort, please contact Legal Aid’s Pro Bono program at [email protected].