The blog of the Urban Institute
December 16, 2019

Four Lessons from Minnesota Can Inform the Eviction Crisis Debate

December 16, 2019

Colleen Gross Ebinger of the Family Housing Fund contributed to this post.

The devastating effects of evictions reach every part of the US. The bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act, introduced in Congress last week, seeks to limit these effects.

The legislation proposes creating or testing new interventions to increase the use of specialized housing courts, expand short-term financial assistance, reduce situations in which eviction filings affect future rental applications, and track the state of evictions in the US.

The success of local eviction prevention efforts in Ramsey County, Minnesota, can inform the national debate about how to best prevent evictions. Ramsey County has many of the elements noted in the Eviction Crisis Act, but many preventable problems remain.

The Family Housing Fund supported the Ramsey County Housing Court, established in 1989, in adding a court-based clinic in 2018, where renters can seek help from lawyers, mediators, and financial assistance providers. Ramsey County, home to Saint Paul, has lower housing costs than Minneapolis, but many renters still can’t afford to make ends meet.

The court clinic has helped rental housing owners and residents work out agreements that prevent eviction, including payment of back rent (often through resources from local emergency assistance providers) and agreements to expunge the eviction filing if the settlement terms are met.

With Urban Institute technical assistance and evaluation support, the Family Housing Fund has helped the same providers bring their services into a community setting to reach renters before their court date—and hopefully before any court filing.

Based on our experience working in and around Saint Paul, we offer four strategies for federal, state, and local decisionmakers to consider as they seek to help communities in need.

1. A specialty housing court enables more effective problem solving.

A specialty housing court allows judicial officers to know housing law well enough to accommodate the speed of eviction cases.

Judges must make decisions quickly from the bench, as opposed to being taken under advisement as with many civil cases. A problem-solving court approach—attempting to address the root cause of what brought a person to court—together with a condensed court calendar, opens up unique partnership opportunities that can better resolve disputes.

In Minnesota, the housing court for Ramsey County has also enabled specialized service delivery right outside the courtroom door.

2. Access to a combination of financial assistance, lawyers, and mediators at the courthouse can resolve many cases quickly.

Offering comprehensive services with the shared goal of preventing eviction at the courthouse enables an immediate and more lasting solution.

In addition to legal and mediation services, financial resources need to be free of onerous verification requirements to deliver solutions in real time. The Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic offers free legal consultations and some limited representation, access to mediators to serve as a neutral party (which is particularly effective when both sides are unrepresented), and financial workers with access to both state emergency assistance dollars and emergency assistance funds that are distributed by the county.

When 94 percent of evictions are filed for nonpayment of rent, swift and convenient access to financial assistance dollars is paramount to eviction prevention and creates a win-win for all parties. But the last thing a family on the verge of losing their housing needs is a list of referrals and instructions to go find the resources themselves.

3. Collaboration or flexibility among emergency funding resources can fill gaps to stabilize tenants and resolve the crisis.

Collaboration between the service providers, each with their different emergency funding sources, that puts the onus on providers to navigate the complicated systems is far more helpful and successful in solving a household’s crisis. When renters can meet with more than one emergency assistance provider in the same place, the providers do the heavy lifting to determine eligibility and secure funding rapidly enough to meet the demands of the emergency.

Landlords and tenants are now negotiating settlement agreements at a much higher rate and drawing on financial assistance resources to comply with payment agreements. Relatively small amounts of money can solve most of the disputes that end up in housing court. Since launching the housing court clinic, we’ve seen an 18 percent reduction in eviction judgements.

4. Streamlined processes can increase expungements.

Finally, tenants need a mechanism to remove eviction filings that have been positively resolved. Minnesota law grants judges the authority to expunge certain civil court records, but many housing court defendants don’t know this is an option. And many states don’t offer expungements.

In Ramsey County, the group of housing court partners worked with the court to amend the settlement template form to add a question asking whether the parties agreed to an expungement if the terms of the agreement were fulfilled.

The court also changed its internal process to allow for automatic expungement once an affidavit of compliance was filed with the court. Simple changes to court forms and processes have made it easier for tenants who comply with settlement agreements to have their court record expunged as part of that same court case.

Previously, tenants had to open up new expungement cases and navigate a complicated legal process. Since implementing these changes, Ramsey County has seen a 25 percent increase in successful eviction expungements, an important step in preserving households’ abilities to secure decent housing opportunities.

This combination of court process changes and comprehensive eviction prevention services that provide real-time solutions has garnered attention from other judicial districts in Minnesota, and the Ramsey County model is now being replicated in two other counties. This approach points to concrete actions that other communities can take to confront the financial precariousness of many families’ daily lives.

For Minnesotans and others seeking to prevent eviction, better data on all types of evictions—whether conducted through courts, informally, or illegally—can focus attention on getting the right tools for the job.

Federal efforts to build better eviction data—while protecting the privacy of people named in eviction cases—can help communities track the progress of new interventions, understand the variation within eviction problems, and find or develop effective policies that foster stability for people who rent their homes.

The Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic model shows us there are plenty of concrete opportunities to work across traditional boundaries to avoid eviction and improve housing stability.

City Hall in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the site of the Ramsey County Housing Court. Photo by Douglas Sacha via Getty Images.

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