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First, Christopher Niedzielski landed in the hospital due to health issues related to kidney failure. After a lengthy stay, Niedzielski was ready to return home — but within days discovered he no longer had anywhere to go.

Niedzielski, 44, and his wife were evicted from their Brooklyn Park apartment last Monday. They owed about $5,000 in back rent, he said.

"It was a crappy situation, but I thought with me having health issues, they would work with me," said Niedzielski, a Burger King manager.

The couple had to leave half of their possessions behind because they were too heavy for his wife to move, he said, and he couldn't help due to medical concerns. They are staying with friends, but he's worried about finding new housing with an eviction on his record.

Niedzielski is not alone. Court system data show that eviction filings in Minnesota soared in June and July as the eviction moratorium expired and the state allowed actions for nonpayment of rent to resume. In 2022, 18,855 evictions were filed in Minnesota courts, the first step in the process, compared with 15,457 in 2019.

But to the surprise of many, eviction filings remained higher than pre-pandemic levels throughout the last six months of 2022, leaping again in December and showing no signs of letting up in January — a time of year when filings usually drop.

Filings haven't been this high since 2013, the tail end of the recession, data show.

Landlords may have held off on filing for eviction during the holidays, but inflation coupled with the end of COVID-19-related assistance has left many tenants unable to afford their housing, state and county officials said.

"Between the start of the pandemic and now, the number or share of households that are rent-burdened has actually gone up," said John Patterson, director of planning, research and evaluation for Minnesota Housing.

Minnesota Housing officials said that as inflation rates have spiked, landlords have been raising rents, though some in the industry dispute that. And there's still a shortage of affordable housing, particularly multifamily, in the metro area and Minnesota.

Tenant groups concerned

Rachael Sterling, an attorney for HOMELine, a tenants' rights organization, collects court data on evictions every day as part of its Eviction Prevention Project and has done so since 2019.

"We thought we were in crisis — and we were in crisis — at that point [in 2019]," she said. "Now we're even worse off."

She believes eviction filings continue in high numbers in part due to a rise in big corporations — as opposed to mom-and-pop-type landlords — owning Minnesota rental property.

"The larger corporations are much less likely to hold off on filing an eviction than your local, smaller management companies or smaller landlords," she said.

Other factors at work?

A possible contributor to the continued increase in eviction filings is that courts — which previously dealt with backlogs — now have more spaces open on their calendars. Jeanette Boerner, director of Adult Representation Services for Hennepin County, said she saw more spots become available starting in October.

"When the courts increase their calendars to hear cases ... then more cases get filed because people know they can get their cases heard," Boerner said.

In Hennepin County, David Hewitt, director of housing stability, said he believes another reason eviction filings have risen is due to counties using up federal pandemic funds for emergency rental assistance.

"We had emergency rental assistance available in our community on a scale that had never been seen before and those programs also have been winding down through 2022," he said.

Hennepin County, which was allotted $58 million in federal emergency assistance, gave out money through November, he said, though officials also shifted about $1 million of the county's budget to continue to help people through the end of 2022.

Hennepin County hit hard

Hennepin County is not only the state's most populous county, it also has the most eviction filings. In 2022, Star Tribune data show about 5,400 eviction filings in Hennepin — about 35% of all filings that year — compared to 4,500 in 2019.

There's simply not enough housing units in the county to provide affordable housing to a group of its lowest-income households - those making less than $31,000 annually for a family of three or $21,000 for an individual.

There are just 14,000 housing units deemed affordable — costing 30% or less of a family or individual's income — for 74,000 households who need it, he said. The remaining 60,000 end up living in places they can't really afford.

"What that means is even quite small shifts in their circumstances can tip them into further crisis," Hewitt said.

Property owners stressed

It's also a tough time for property owners, said Cecil Smith, president and CEO of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association.

Smith said that if eviction filings in the last six months were spread out across the months of the pandemic and its aftermath — from March 2020 through December 2022 — the recent spikes would be "smoothed out" and yearly totals would be below 2018 and 2019 levels.

"Looking at averages, we're still on that downward trend," he said.

He said some landlords held off on filing and tried harder to work out payment plans with tenants in recent months because courts were so backed up.

"Because what's the point of filing? I'm not going to get a court date for four months," he said.

Meanwhile, association members still have to pay mortgages, utilities, insurance and taxes, he said, adding that many of these costs are climbing upward.

Contrary to what others have said, rents aren't increasing in the metro area, Smith said. In fact, the Twin Cities saw its average rent decline by 8.5% in December, more than in any other major market, a Redfin survey said. And in some neighborhoods, like Uptown, landlords have lowered rents just to fill units, he said.

Angie French, vice president of Mid Continent Management Corp., said she and her peers saw the eviction process linger beyond June and July because, in many cases, tenants were waiting to see if they qualified for rental assistance. Paperwork sometimes needed to be refiled.

Delinquent renters continue to cause problems for some property owners, she said.

"Some of our properties had over 10% of their population severely delinquent on rent," she said. "We're not going to file that many evictions ... with the idea that they potentially could all vacate because that's not a smart business move."

No easy process

Evictions are expensive for landlords, she said, and they don't solve the financial problem. They only allow the owner to rent a given unit to someone else.

A tenant may owe $20,000 in back rent and the landlord may never recover it, she said.

Both French and Smith said evictions aren't something anyone wants to happen.

"We're in the housing business," French said. "We do this because we want to house people."

Intern Ellie Roth and staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.