Housing court in Saint Paul, Minnesota, opens just before 9 a.m. on a frigid Tuesday in early November. Dozens of nervous tenants file in, checking in with the clerk at the front of the room and then finding a seat on the long, padded benches angled toward the podium. There isn’t much privacy in this small space, but there’s no question why people are here: it’s housing court, and every case involves an eviction.
Ramsey County and the surrounding region is facing a rental affordability crisis amid a shortage of affordable homes. Nearly half of renters in Saint Paul spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and around 1,170 evictions were filed in the city in 2017. Every Tuesday and Thursday, as many as 30 tenants are called into Minnesota’s Second Judicial District’s Housing Court to face their filing.
It’s quiet in the courtroom except for a toddler laughing and playing with her brother in an aisle as their mother sifts through papers, getting ready for her turn. One by one, each tenant is called up to stand at the podium next to their landlord (or, more often, their landlord’s attorney) in front of the judicial referee. Tenants rarely have legal representation in the courtroom, but most landlords do.
The judicial referee speaks calmly to ease the tenants’ nervousness. When tenants reach a settlement agreement with their landlords, they hear the same questions from the referee: “Is this your signature on the agreement?” “Do you agree to these conditions?” “Are you sure this agreement works for you?” “Do you have any questions for me?” They quickly answer “Yes. Yes. Yes. No,” before rushing out of the courtroom to get back to their jobs and their families.
So what’s next for them? They might work out a payment plan with their landlord that allows them to stay in their home. Or, if the referee approves the eviction, they might have one week to gather all their belongings, leave the apartment they’ve called home for years, and start over somewhere else. That “somewhere else” isn’t always clear, but they have seven days to figure it out. It doesn’t help that the first real snow of the season is forecast to arrive in the next few days.
Although cases often end with judgments or settlements that involve moving, tenants in Ramsey County face better odds of staying in their home than people in their same position a few years ago. In July 2018, the Ramsey County Housing Court set up a clinic in the courthouse offering tenants services that could help their case, such as legal aid, emergency assistance funds, and mediation.
The clinic has helped people facing eviction understand their legal rights, access funds that could keep them in their home, and negotiate agreements with their landlords to avoid being forced out and potentially remove the eviction case from their record. The combination of financial, legal, and mediation supports are a lifeline for Minnesotan families in need.
In October 2019, a version of the court clinic began doing the same work in the community, aiming to reach families before an eviction is ever filed. The model builds on the court clinic’s lessons about the importance of providing services in one place and collaboration among organizations with different expertise. The new clinic pilot aims to find out: Could this approach help service providers reach families before they’re in a crisis?
The Housing Court Clinic: Working together to address a pervasive housing challenge
Just after July 4th weekend last year, Kristy Rud found herself standing alone in housing court, unsure of what would happen next. Rud, a single mom, had recently left her position as a social worker to work at a garden center because she wanted a flexible job that allowed her to spend more time with her preteen sons. But the unexpected volatility of the gardening job meant she wasn’t earning enough to afford rent, which her landlord had recently raised to $1,170.
In a whirlwind of events, she received notice she was behind on rent, faced an eviction filing, and found herself in housing court. During her hearing, she felt helpless next to her landlord’s attorney. She agreed to pay back two months’ rent, but she had no idea how she was going to come up with that much money. As Rud left the courtroom in tears, she ran into Shellie Rowe, manager of family centers at Neighborhood House.
I felt like someone was holding my hand and was there helping and trying to support.
Rowe brought her into the Housing Court Clinic outside the courtroom and worked with Rud and a representative from the county’s emergency assistance program. Together, they figured out how to pull together enough money from different funding sources to keep Rud and her sons in their home.
“I felt like someone was holding my hand and was there helping and trying to support,” Rud said. “[Rowe] wasn't able to cover all of it, but she certainly got me into the right direction to be able to do what I needed to do to have it covered.” Through Neighborhood House funding, county emergency assistance, and other local organizations’ funding sources, Rud gathered enough money to pay back her overdue rent and stay in her home.
Rud’s story of housing instability amid rising rents and income volatility is common in the region, where the supply of affordable units is dwindling. Between 2011 and 2017, the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area lost 70,000 homes that rented for less than $800 a month.
The affordability problem is even greater for people of color: more than half of renters of color in Saint Paul spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. This mirrors a broader national trend that people of color face a greater risk of housing instability because of former and current policies and practices that have hindered their efforts to find decent housing and develop greater financial well-being.
“We know that communities of color are most impacted by eviction. We know that eviction is an issue that stays with folks for a long time after an eviction. It is on their credit record for years. So that means their next housing choice after eviction is never better,” said Ellen Sahli, president of local intermediary organization the Family Housing Fund and the Urban Institute’s 2019 Janice Nittoli Fellow. “It was that housing landscape—the tightness of the market, the really low vacancy rate in our region—that led us to focus on strategies to help people who have housing maintain and keep it.”
A group of organizations from the housing, legal, financial, and social service sectors teamed up to address the growing housing instability crisis. Together, they launched the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic, which aims to improve the housing court process and strengthen families’ chances of staying in their homes by offering many services all in one place and at no cost.
Now, when tenants arrive at court for their hearing, they see the clinic check-in table as soon as they enter the lobby outside the courtroom. Clinic workers talk with them to figure out what services they need.
Tenants, who often don’t know their legal rights, can meet with a lawyer at the clinic to talk through their case. In some cases, tenants and landlords can work out their dispute through mediation and come to an agreement that both sides find acceptable. Those mediation services can bring tenants and landlords together and help them share their stories and find common ground, potentially repairing their relationship. And because most evictions are for nonpayment of rent, emergency assistance and other funding sources available at the clinic can help families pay their overdue rent and avoid losing their homes.
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.
For the past two years, the organization has offered Crisis Mornings twice a week, where families can come for help with housing and other financial challenges. But Neighborhood House can’t offer everything families need. That’s why it worked with the Family Housing Fund to host a version of the court clinic during its Wednesday Crisis Morning service, using the same providers and one-stop-shop approach.
The Crisis Clinic’s new on-site services pilot, which launched in October 2019, aims to use the organization’s connection to the community to reach people who are struggling financially and need emergency assistance with utilities, rent, or other necessities. The same legal, mediation, and county financial assistance providers from the Housing Court Clinic now come on Wednesdays to Neighborhood House’s building, which offers a less stressful environment than the courthouse.
Rather than passing through security to enter a windowless courtroom, families at the Crisis Clinic walk into a sunlit lobby and wait at individual tables. As people fill out paperwork, Neighborhood House representatives ask about their family’s situation and gush over the sleeping babies some parents bring along in strollers. Case managers then bring families to private conference rooms to talk through their challenges—a stark contrast to the exposed courtroom.
Like the court clinic, the new Crisis Clinic pilot ensures all service providers are in one place, working together to find the best solution for families. At the clinic, representatives from Neighborhood House and Ramsey County Emergency Assistance can sit in a room together and discuss how much money each can draw from their respective funding pools (which often have different rules for where the money can go) or suggest other local funding options to help people pay rent.
After learning more about the family’s needs, a Neighborhood House case manager can walk the tenant to a legal aid representative and discuss their situation together before handing them off. The tenant and attorney can then discuss any legal concerns, such as housing quality issues or employment and benefits disputes. The case manager can also bring tenants to the mediator, who can help the tenants learn how to communicate effectively with their landlord and potentially set up a meeting with their landlord to try to work out an agreement before an eviction filing.
Reaching tenants before an eviction filing gives service providers more time to address families’ underlying financial challenges and keep them in their homes, and it prevents tenants from having an eviction judgment on their record, which makes it harder to find housing in the future. Averting the eviction filing is also beneficial for landlords, who want to avoid the fees associated with housing court and want their tenants to be able to pay their rent in full.
“There is a common agreement on what needs to happen to resolve the eviction,” Sahli said. “It's not always easy to come up with the resources for the family, but at least our goal is the same. We can make great headway when we have the same common goal.”
Because the Crisis Clinic pilot has been open for only a short time, data aren’t yet available about its results. Urban Institute researchers are studying whether the clinic is helping people reach services before an eviction filing. But organizations involved in the clinic said that even though the clinic is new, its emphasis on close collaboration has allowed them to build deeper relationships and develop greater trust. They all have a better understanding of what role the other service providers can play, and they can communicate more quickly to find solutions for families.
“It’s been a learning process as we’ve gone on. We’re collaborating a lot and communicating a lot more effectively,” said Precious Lowery, housing manager with the Dispute Resolution Center in Saint Paul. “When people come to mediation after talking with other organizations in the clinic, they know their rights. They know if they’ll get some assistance. That makes for a much better conversation. The clinic dynamic is really great because it’s a well-oiled machine.”
One piece of the puzzle needed for large-scale change
Neighborhood House’s new Crisis Clinic pilot strives to meet a critical need in the community, but it is only a small component of what’s needed to tackle the broader challenge of housing instability in the region.
Developing more research and building a better understanding of what types of prevention strategies work best for both landlords and tenants (as well as when best to pursue them) can reduce evictions. Educating tenants and landlords about what services are available can also help avoid a missed rent payment altogether. And ensuring tenants have legal representation can foster a more equitable experience in housing court. In 2017, Minnesota’s free tenant hotline service HOME Line found that landlords in Saint Paul had legal representation in 75 percent of cases, while tenants had representation in just 5 percent of cases.
Streamlined access to emergency financial assistance can also help more people stay in their homes and weather a temporary crisis. “Given the tight housing market, given how expensive rental housing is, we know that we will continue to see families in crisis,” Sahli said. “So it is absolutely essential that we have the emergency financial assistance that can be available in short order to help families maintain that stability.”
Despite the scale and systemic nature of these challenges, the overarching goal is clear: keep families in their homes and ensure they’re financially stable. The path to achieving that goal is complex and involves many stakeholders, assistance options, and points when people can get help. But ultimately the common objective stays the same, and that’s a powerful driver for change.
“When you see the trauma that happens when a family loses their home, it's heartbreaking. It also is so hard to repair, and families remember this as they get older and their children remember,” Rowe said. “If we can prevent that, that's worth gold.”
This feature was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through the Janice Nittoli Practitioner Fellowship. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
DESIGN Christina Baird and John Wehmann
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Michael Marazzi
PHOTOGRAPHY AND VIDEOGRAPHY Proper Studios
WRITING Emily Peiffer
We thank Colleen Ebinger of Family Housing Fund, as well as staff from Neighborhood House, Dispute Resolution Center, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, and Ramsey County for their contributions to this feature.