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Angele Enger, a single mom of two teenagers, spent the first two months of the year worrying where the family would go if evicted from their public housing on the East Side of St. Paul.

Their townhome had been a source of stability after she separated from the children's father. Her youngest struggled in virtual school while battling anxiety and depression. Enger was laid off from her Instacart shopping job when Cub Foods launched its own delivery service.

When she received an eviction notice from the St. Paul Public Housing Agency in December, she panicked.

"I wanted to throw up every day," she said. "I couldn't sleep. I started packing because I didn't know what to do. I didn't know where to go. It was literally the worst feeling ever in my whole life."

Slowing to a trickle during the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, Twin Cities' public housing evictions are rising again to outpace pre-pandemic rates.

Many industries that employ low-income workers, including retail and hospitality, have not recovered, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Yet the state's emergency rental assistance program stopped issuing funds. Told by U.S. Housing and Urban Development that rent cannot be waived, Minneapolis and St. Paul public housing agencies are escalating rent enforcement.

Eviction leaves tenants who can't afford market-rate rent — seniors, disabled people and children in female-led households — with few options. It comes with a three-year ban from public housing and a legal blemish that deters private landlords.

"The stakes are so high in these cases because it takes years and years to get into public housing, and once you're evicted from there, there's really nowhere else to go," said lawyer Mary Kaczorek of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. "With the gap between what folks earn and what rents are, the market just isn't there for folks at that income level."

Fiduciary responsibility

Gov. Tim Walz's eviction moratorium, established spring 2020, phased out the following year and completely lifted last June.

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency started filing regular evictions earlier, in December 2021. The overwhelming reason: failure to pay rent.

The agency has initiated 175 cases since, resulting in 46 evictions so far. Its 31 filings in the first three months of this year outpace its five-year pre-pandemic rate by 88%.

"Unfortunately, low-wage jobs aren't always flexible with paid time off," said Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services lawyer Heather Mendiola. "We see public housing tenants hit hard with unplanned catastrophic events, like hospitalizations and funerals, who are in the forced position to use the rent money to cover these unexpected expenses."

St. Paul Public Housing Agency executive director Jon Gutzmann declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said staff spent 4,000 hours helping tenants get federal emergency assistance.

But once RentHelpMN stopped taking applications last spring, the agency stepped up lease enforcement to reduce its delinquent rent balance from a high of more than $1 million in October 2021 to $366,900 last month.

Tenant rent accounts for 38% of the agency's operating budget; the rest is composed of taxpayer-funded federal subsidies. HUD has stated rent is still due during the pandemic, will accumulate if unpaid and cannot be waived, Gutzmann said .

The St. Paul Public Housing Agency claimed Enger owed more than $10,000 when it filed to evict her. She alleged the agency got her income wrong after someone stole her Social Security number to apply for a job.

Through word of mouth, Enger found SMRLS lawyer Jesse Smith. He was too booked to attend her first court date, but he insisted she show up no matter how scared she felt because those who don't appear are automatically evicted.

With Smith's help, Enger eventually worked out a settlement with the public housing agency. She can now focus on negotiating special education services for her son and plans to start her own cleaning service.

"Lately it's been like a breath of fresh air … because you sit and worry and worry and it consumes you," Enger said. "I don't want anybody else to go through this, but I'm sure a lot of people are."

$75 lease termination

Minneapolis Public Housing Authority residents packed Hennepin housing court in March.

One by one, the clerk offered the renters free legal consultation from the county's Adult Representation Services. A 2021 Minneapolis ordinance established a right to legal services for poor defendants in eviction cases, and nearly everyone present opted to take it, striking deals with the public housing agency to gradually pay back what they owe.

Two of the poorest tenants scheduled that day were a 57-year-old woman who received a lease termination notice after falling behind $75 and a 64-year-old man who had owed $228. Neither appeared. The court issued orders asking the sheriff to remove them from their homes. The Star Tribune could not locate the tenants afterward.

MPHA's 134 filings in the first quarter of the year, according to Hennepin County's eviction dashboard, are occurring at a rate 78% higher than its pre-COVID average.

These days the agency sends notice of lease termination the first month tenants default on rent, regardless of how much is owed. Staff attempt to help them create repayment plans before initiating eviction, spokesman Drew Halunen said.

Fanchon Williams, 55, lost her job in December after getting sick and missing more work than allowed. She came up short $139 in rent. Williams said MPHA offered her a list of lawyers, but denied getting any other help before the agency moved to evict.

"I thought it was a joke. I ended up getting an eviction [filed] for $200-something," she said. "I was really under a lot of stress."

Williams quickly settled with MPHA after borrowing from family but said she was shocked at how close she came to losing her home.

"Every single resident has to pay rent and this is a federal regulation," said Abdi Warsame, the agency's executive director. "Absolutely the last thing we want to do is to evict someone, but we have to follow the rules."

Linda Hamilton, 61, received an MPHA eviction notice last month. A disabling injury put her out of work 15 years ago, she said. She spent seven years on a wait list to get her current apartment on the fifth floor of a northeast Minneapolis high-rise.

During the pandemic, Hamilton cobbled together various sources of rental assistance. When they began to dry up, she turned to mutual aid from community organizations like Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity. Still, her outstanding balance grew to more than $800.

Hamilton wants help forming a payment plan before she's summoned to court, but she hasn't agreed with the public housing authority on how much she can afford. Part of the conflict stems from frustration with her aging apartment building, which is too cramped to comfortably navigate in her scooter and wheelchair, she said.

"I waited many years," Hamilton said. "And I've been unhappy and depressed since I've been here."

Unspent millions

Minnesota Housing, the state's housing finance agency, still has $85 million in federal funds that were awarded after its rental assistance portal ran out of money and closed. A coalition of housing advocates urged Minnesota Housing to release that money as Congress intended, to renters at greatest risk of homelessness.

"All hell broke loose last June when the last [eviction moratorium] protections ended," said HOME Line executive director Eric Hauge. "The timeline for getting money in the hands of a landlord through a county or state's rental assistance program just does not align with the timeline for evictions right now."

Citing the need for more affordable housing, the agency decided to split the money evenly between targeted rental assistance and housing development. Staff are still working to implement those plans.

Early in the legislative session, Walz proposed $100 million over the next two years for the state Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program, which provides rent assistance. The Legislature appropriated half that amount.

Staff data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.