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St. Paul Public Housing Agency files to evict 32 tenants amid influx of federal rent help

15December 2021

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency moved to evict 32 tenants this month, the first large-scale removal effort by a public housing entity since Minnesota started phasing out its eviction ban.

Some renters have lived in their one-bedroom high-rise apartments and townhome-style units for a decade or two. Others moved in during the height of the pandemic. All are behind on rent, owing anywhere from $145 to more than $14,000.

Housing agency leaders said the eviction filings were necessary to properly manage taxpayer dollars, but renter advocates questioned the decision, given the hundreds of millions in federal aid dedicated to rent assistance in Minnesota.

“It just seems absolutely perplexing to me,” HOME Line Executive Director Eric Hauge said. “When we have, not endless, but a large amount of rental assistance out there, public housing tenants should not be getting evicted over in some cases what looks like less than $200.”

Jon Gutzmann, who runs the St. Paul Housing Agency, said last week the agency reached out repeatedly to the 32 families and individuals before filing on Dec. 1 to evict them.

“It goes back to our fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers who provide the HUD subsidies,” Gutzmann said, noting the agency is governed by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations. “We have no chance, no ability, to not proceed. And the home run is residents can still apply for the assistance and avoid eviction.”

On Tuesday, some tenants did just that, showing up in evictions court to say they were filing for rental assistance. A housing agency official then agreed to stop the eviction process in those cases, while moving forward with others.

Across Minnesota, evictions are returning to pre-pandemic levels as the state rolls back renter protections Gov. Tim Walz imposed as COVID-19 spread. On Oct. 12, landlords could start evicting people or terminating their lease for any reason, with one caveat. Anyone who failed to pay rent but had a pending application for rent help will continue to be protected until June 1.

The state has $528 million from the federal government to assist Minnesotans with rent and utility bills, Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said, and the Twin Cities and some metro counties got another $145 million.

Since the October change, some private landlords have also taken steps to evict groups of tenants who have fallen behind on rent. Most notably, Sun Communities, which runs a mobile home park in Stewartville near Rochester, filed in November to remove a dozen people who had failed to pay rent. The company filed to evict another 14 renters in early December.

But the 32 eviction filings are the most by any landlord in recent months, Hauge said. “And it’s unfortunate it’s the public housing authority.”

Other Minnesota housing authorities have not filed a comparable number of evictions. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has filed to oust tenants for issues including drug-related criminal activity or cleanliness concerns. But since the onset of the pandemic, the authority has not evicted anyone for being unable to pay rent, Executive Director Abdi Warsame said.

“Our team has worked diligently to help stabilize households in these challenging times. We hired two housing stability coordinators to connect residents unable to pay rent with the right resources,” Warsame said in a statement. He said the authority has helped 400 residents get more than $1.5 million in rent relief, with another $430,000 pending.

St. Paul Public Housing Agency residents have received $1.4 million in rent aid, Gutzmann said, and the agency’s staff has helped all tenants who needed assistance filling out their applications. In 2019, the agency filed to evict 91 tenants, Gutzmann said, and historically, 99% of the people who live in the agency’s more than 4,200 units have complied with their leases.

Since Oct. 12, the agency has sent more than 1,200 notices to people saying their lease would be terminated because they were behind on rent, according to a report Gutzmann sent to the agency’s board on Nov. 24. Louise Toscano Seeba, the agency’s general counsel, said they tried to contact each of the 32 households an average of 10 times.

“We’re hoping we can add them to the long list of residents that our resident services department has helped, to the tune of an average six hours per household,” she said last week. “We can’t do it completely on their behalf. We have to have them participate.”

The tenants facing eviction live in public housing buildings across the city, court records show.

A handful live in the townhome-style McDonough Homes development in St. Paul’s North End. Their homes were quiet on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and no one answered the door. Walkways leading up to some of the units were covered in snow, unlike those of many neighbors. Jugs of frozen milk sat outside one unit. A small tricycle was beside the porch of another apartment.

Public housing tenants’ rent is based on income and varies widely. A man who has lived in McDonough Homes for more than a decade owes the most. His monthly rent is $1,212 and he has racked up $14,164 in debt. But two people facing eviction in high rise apartments pay just $25 a month, and owe $145 and $175 in back rent.

One tenant who pays $25 a month said his eviction filing stemmed from a miscommunication, and he has since paid all but $1 of his debt. He asked not to be identified because he said is a student and is concerned about the potential impact on his career and finances. He hoped to sort out the situation at a court hearing Thursday.

“Whenever I want to rent another house or do anything in the future, this is going to affect my future,” he said. “My future depends on this. I really don’t want this thing to be my history.”

On average, people living in the 32 units have been in their homes for more than six years and owe around $3,200. Removal from public housing could create long-term challenges for them.

“Being evicted from public housing, the likelihood of people ending up experiencing homelessness and having long-term housing instability problems going forward from that is really dramatic,” Hauge said.

The renters need to apply for assistance, show up in court and reach out for legal help, said Laura Jelinek, a housing attorney at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services,

“It’s devastating to lose housing that comes with subsidies, support systems and the right for a good-cause eviction,” Jelinek said. People could be forced to find a new home in a tough rental market with an eviction on their record, which she said makes their housing choice “about half of what it would be or even less.”

People on the brink of eviction in the public housing units “must be in a really bad place,” she said, noting that she is encountering a lot of people with disabilities and mental health challenges who are struggling at this point in the pandemic. However, unlike privately-owned apartment complexes, there are many workers providing support services in public housing, she said, and questioned how the agency could better utilize those services to prevent evictions.

“What can the public housing agency do?” Jelinek asked. “What is their duty?”

Staff writers Zoë Jackson and Katie Galioto contributed to this report.

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