Minnesota AG: Landlords still try to force tenants out during coronavirus pandemic

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Minnesota’s Attorney General is suing a handful of landlords for trying to force tenants out of their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One landlord admitted in court that he went into a rental home and used a screwdriver to shut off a tenant’s electricity.

Another is accused of repeatedly cutting off a tenant’s water in an attempt to force them out, according to one lawsuit.

Residents of a duplex reported that their landlord refused to refill the empty propane tank on the rental property because one tenant was behind on rent.

Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is focusing specifically on landlords who are not only violating Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order that suspended all eviction proceedings, but those who are also violating state law by shutting off or restricting access to utilities.

"If you try to push someone out by cutting off their vital services, like water and utilities, we’re simply not going to allow that to happen," Ellison said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.

On March 23, Walz signed an executive order suspending evictions in an effort to keep people in stable housing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the weeks leading up to the governor’s order, 5 INVESTIGATES discovered judges in the Twin Cities metro continued to order evictions, even though state leaders were begging Minnesotans to stay home.

RELATED: As state pleaded for people to stay home, courts kept ordering evictions in Minnesota

But with formal eviction proceedings on hold, tenant complaints to the AG’s office continued to rise through the month of April, according to data reviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES. Over a three-week period, complaints nearly tripled from 132 to 365.

"What the attorney general is dealing with is a fraction of the tens of thousands of great property managers and owners across the State of Minnesota who are trying to do the very best for their residents," said Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, a group that advocates on behalf of property managers and owners.

The association has issued its own guidance to members on how to handle disputes while the governor’s order is in effect.

Smith and Ellison both say the majority of landlords across the state are operating in good faith during the pandemic.

"We’re trying to differentiate between the folks who are just being abusive and would be abusive no matter what, and those landlords who are trying to provide housing, they’re just under a lot of pressure themselves," Ellison said.

But with the economic and public health consequences of COVID-19 expected to continue for several months, advocates for both tenants and landlords are concerned about a potential rush of eviction filings once the governor’s executive order is lifted.

"As early as May 18, the floodgates will open and the courts will be packed with a bunch of families facing eviction," said Luke Grundman, managing attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

What Happens Next?

Grundman raised concerns with court officials last week about how eviction proceedings will violate other public health guidelines, such as social distancing.

"Before COVID, three afternoons a week, the court would have 45 cases scheduled for the same time period in front of the same judge," Grundman said.

Mass calendars in housing court, if allowed to continue after the ‘stay at home’ order is lifted, will create a public health crisis, Grundman argued in a letter sent to Hennepin County District Court judges.

"The court should begin now to prepare for the steps it will need to take to prepare for a post-pandemic era," the letter, signed by Grundman and five other attorneys, reads. "Parties should have a real opportunity to resolve cases before coming to court in order to avoid the heightened risk of infection."

When in-person cases resume, the group suggests scheduling less cases in housing court each day and allowing tenants more time to respond to eviction notices.

"What I hope will happen is that systems and the people who work on behalf of low-income tenants and the folks who work on behalf of landlords will start to see there is some wide middle ground here," Grundman said.

Smith said the majority of landlords in Minnesota are already searching for that common ground under tough circumstances.

"It’s hard, it’s challenging but people are doing great things for each other," he said.

Lawmakers are also trying to find solutions that benefit both renters and property owners. A bill introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives would provide $100 million in rental and mortgage payment assistance, as well as help renters pay for utilities during the crisis.

The bill will be debated by the full house on Thursday as part of a package of proposed economic security measures.