Public housing

St. Paul’s public housing agency seeks eviction of 32 tenants amid influx of federal rent assistance

The St. Paul public housing agency decided to evict 32 tenants this month, the first large-scale eviction effort by a public housing entity since Minnesota began phasing out its ban on occupancy. expulsion.

Some tenants have lived in their one-bedroom high-rise apartments and townhouse-style units for a decade or two. Others moved in at the height of the pandemic. All are behind on rent, owing between $145 and more than $14,000.

Housing agency executives said the eviction records were necessary to properly manage taxpayers’ money, but tenant advocates questioned the decision, given the hundreds of millions in federal aid spent on eviction. rental assistance in Minnesota.

“That strikes me as absolutely perplexing,” said HOME Line executive director Eric Hauge. “When we have, not endless, but a large amount of housing assistance, social housing tenants shouldn’t be evicted in some cases for what looks like less than $200.”

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

“It comes down to our fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers who provide HUD grants,” Gutzmann said, noting that the agency is governed by regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We have no chance, no ability, of not continuing. And the home run is that residents can always seek help and avoid eviction.”

On Tuesday, some tenants did just that, appearing in eviction court to say they were applying for housing assistance. A housing agency official then agreed to halt the eviction process in these cases, while moving forward with others.

Across Minnesota, evictions are returning to pre-pandemic levels as the state rolls back tenant protections imposed by Governor Tim Walz amid the spread of COVID-19. On October 12, landlords could start evicting people or terminating their leases for any reason, with one caveat: Anyone who hasn’t paid rent but had a rental assistance claim pending will continue to be protected until June 1.

The state has $528 million from the federal government to help Minnesotans pay their rent and utility bills, Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said, and the Twin Cities and some metropolitan counties received $145 million. additional.

Since the October change, some private landlords have also taken steps to evict groups of overdue tenants. Most notably, Sun Communities, which runs a mobile home park in Stewartville near Rochester, asked in November to kick out a dozen people who had failed to pay their rent. The company requested the eviction of 14 other tenants in early December.

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

No other Minnesota housing authority has filed a comparable number of evictions. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority filed for eviction of the tenants for issues such as drug-related criminal activity or cleanliness issues. But since the start of the pandemic, the authority has not evicted anyone for non-payment of rent, executive director Abdi Warsame said.

“Our team has worked diligently to help stabilize households during these difficult times. We have hired two Housing Stability Coordinators to connect residents unable to pay rent with the right resources,” Warsame said in a statement. communicated. He said the authority had helped 400 residents get more than $1.5 million in rent relief, with another $430,000 on hold.

Residents of the St. Paul public housing agency received $1.4 million in rent assistance, Gutzmann said, and agency staff helped any tenants who needed help with fulfill their requests. In 2019, the agency filed for eviction of 91 tenants, Gutzmann said, and historically, 99% of people who live in the agency’s more than 4,200 units have honored their leases.

Since Oct. 12, the agency has sent more than 1,200 notices to people saying their leases will be terminated due to overdue rent, according to a report Gutzmann sent to the agency’s board on November 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 hope to be able to add them to the long list of residents that our resident services department has helped, an average of six hours per household,” she said last week. “We can’t do it completely on their behalf. We have to involve them.”

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

A handful live in the townhouse-style McDonough Homes development in the North St. Paul neighborhood. Their homes were quiet on a sunny afternoon and no one answered the door. The walkways to some of the units were covered in snow, unlike many of the neighbors. Jugs of frozen milk lay outside one unit. A small tricycle sat next to the porch of another apartment.

Rent for social housing tenants is income-based and varies widely. A man who has lived at McDonough Homes for over a decade owes the most. His monthly rent is $1,212 and he has accumulated $14,164 in debt. But two people facing eviction in high-rise buildings pay just $25 a month and owe $145 and $175 in back rent.

A tenant who pays $25 a month said his eviction case stemmed from miscommunication and he has since paid all but $1 of his debt. He asked not to be identified because he said he was a student and was worried about the potential impact on his career and finances. He hoped to settle the situation at a court hearing on Thursday.

“Every time I want to rent another house or do anything in the future, it’s going to affect my future,” he said. “My future depends on it. I really don’t want this thing to be my story.”

On average, people living in the 32 units have been in their units for more than six years and owe about $3,200. The withdrawal of social housing could create long-term challenges for them.

“Being evicted from social housing, the likelihood of people going homeless and having long-term housing instability issues from there is really dramatic,” Hauge said.

Tenants should seek help, go to court and seek legal help, said Laura Jelinek, a housing attorney with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

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

People on the verge of eviction in social housing ‘must be in a very bad place’, she said, noting that she meets many people with disabilities and struggling with mental health issues at this point. of the pandemic. However, unlike private apartment complexes, many workers provide support services in public housing, she said, and she wondered how the agency could better use those services to prevent evictions.

“What can the HLM agency do?” Jelinek asked. “What is their duty? »

Writers Zoë Jackson and Katie Galioto contributed to this report.