When the group leaders designed the clinic, they prioritized having all the services available in one easily accessible location in the courthouse. With the support of Chief Judge John Guthmann, clinic organizers set up in a cluster of rooms just steps away from the courtroom and educated the judicial referees about how the clinic can help tenants and landlords. This one-stop shop makes it easier for the organizations to work together to figure out the best solution for tenants, and it makes it easier for people to track down help from different organizations during a crisis.
Since the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic launched in July 2018, Minnesota’s Second Judicial District’s Housing Court in Saint Paul has seen an 18 percent reduction in eviction judgments, an increase in settlement agreements, and a drop in the share of eviction filings that result in an eviction judgment, according to Colleen Ebinger, vice president of the Family Housing Fund. And the number of cases per year expunged from tenants’ records has doubled. Local leaders in nearby counties have taken note of the housing court’s success, and some are working with the clinic’s leaders to adapt the program for their own judicial districts.
But as leaders of the initiative will admit, the court clinic can’t change the fact that most tenants missed their rent payments, even if broader problems (such as rising rents, employment challenges, health care costs, and other financial burdens) contributed to that situation.
“It's critical that resources are available at housing court. It's the last thing that stands between someone being able to remain in their housing and losing their housing,” Ebinger said. “But we all know it’s too late once we're at housing court to avoid all of the damage that we otherwise could have. We could do so much more if we can identify these emergencies earlier and work with them as soon as they present as an emergency, and if we treated them with the real urgency that they demand.”
Developing the housing court clinic set the stage for the next iteration of this effort: a clinic that offers all the same services in one place but instead helps families avert a housing crisis before it happens.
The Crisis Clinic: Reaching families before they go to court
Frank Ford has lived in the same Saint Paul apartment for 10 years. That apartment is more than just his own shelter: he also uses it to give people living on the streets a place to come get a hot cup of coffee, take a shower, make a phone call, or stay overnight to get out of the cold.
“[My landlord] putting me out would have done the whole neighborhood, I think, a disservice because I try to serve the people there as best I can … That little apartment has been a blessing not only to me but to a lot of other people.”
But since the new landlord of Ford’s building raised his rent from $500 to $625, he has struggled to make ends meet. In October, he helped a friend out of a financial bind and missed his next two rent payments. His landlord filed for eviction, and Ford was on the brink of losing his home just as winter was descending on the region.
“[My landlord] putting me out would have done the whole neighborhood, I think, a disservice because I try to serve the people there as best I can … That little apartment has been a blessing not only to me but to a lot of other people,” Ford said. “Of course I don't want to be out in the cold. Nobody does. But more than that, those that are already out in the cold, I'd like to provide a place for them to come into out of the cold, at least for a little while. So, that's my biggest concern.”
After the eviction filing, Ford reached out to Rowe at Neighborhood House for assistance. She was able to find funding to pay Ford’s landlord the missing rent and keep Ford in his apartment.
Neighborhood House has held a prominent profile in the community for decades, helping people like Ford stay in their homes through financial assistance from federal and state programs. It also has a direct relationship with landlords in the region, and some landlords now contact Neighborhood House before filing for eviction on a tenant.