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The number of court orders evicting Minnesota renters from their homes has dropped by a third in the past decade, reflecting an improving economy and greater awareness of how an eviction judgment can derail a tenant's future housing options.

It's a glimmer of positive news amid Minnesota's affordable housing crisis, attributed to a rise of eviction prevention programs, more tenants getting lawyers and the end of the foreclosure crisis. Evictions disproportionately affect households of color and families in low-income areas, according to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

In recent years, more than 17,000 evictions have been filed in housing courts across Minnesota, falling substantially since the days of the foreclosure crisis when banks were regularly evicting homeowners who had defaulted on their loans, according to a Star Tribune analysis of court data.

These days, 40% of eviction filings in Minnesota are resulting in eviction orders, down from about 50% a decade ago, while a growing share end in settlements between tenants and landlords, in which they agree on the payment of owed rent or that tenants will leave without evictions on their records.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties account for nearly a third of the eviction judgments in Minnesota. The counties saw 22% and 39% decreases respectively over a decade. In the same time period, Dakota County saw its eviction judgments drop by more than half and Anoka County saw its numbers drop by 38%. Meanwhile, St. Louis County only saw a 3% decrease.

More resources for tenants is why Tarryel Powell was able to avoid an eviction thanks to help from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. She went to Hennepin County housing court in December, after the landlord of her St. Louis Park apartment sought to evict her for failing to pay the fees for noise violations. She was getting the violations frequently even though she denied she was noisy.

Her case was dismissed and the eviction filing expunged from her record. But the incident was "a whole mental process" that left her crying in her apartment some days, worried about what might happen to her and her three grandchildren if they could not find a home in the middle of winter.

"My rent was paid every month by the due date and I still have to be there [in housing court] with people not paying rent," Powell said. "I'm not a danger to no one. I didn't know what to expect because there was just so many people there."

Luke Grundman, a managing attorney for housing with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which represents about 600 families per year in housing court, said more "right to counsel" policies adopted by local governments have also helped tenants.

The policy grants access to housing lawyers for low-income tenants. Grundman said over time "landlords realized they're not as likely to win so they don't file" for evictions. He also pointed out more tenants are becoming aware of their rights.

"It's become a much more consequential thing for families who are impacted, so tenants will fight more than they would have 15 or 20 years ago," Grundman said. "It's almost like they have to fight the eviction because it could be a life sentence or one that could have generational effects."

Minneapolis landlord Harry Greenberg tries to avoid housing court because "it gets ugly very quickly" and often leaves both parties unhappy. Greenberg, who has operated rental properties in Minneapolis for 25 years, said he is mindful that "there's an inherently unequal power distribution" when it comes to tenants and landlords. If tenants can't pay rent, he will work with them to pay him later, or find a way to get them out of the property amicably.

"On paper it's like, 'How can you not pay rent?' and I have to have enough humility to know I don't know what's going on with people," Greenberg said. "It's not fun being in a situation where the utilities are going to be cut off and your landlords are on the phone. … I think we have to understand what is it that we can reasonably do to hear them out and to understand what their situation is."

The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, the statewide organization for property owners, acknowledged the drop in evictions in an e-mail statement and said that "it is highly likely that the property manager worked to find a resolution before the eviction was commenced."

"It's obligatory when local and state officials are setting policy that they work to ensure that their decisions don't jeopardize safe and affordable housing for the majority of renters," the organization said. "Furthermore, we have supported and suggested that any policy changes should be focused on predatory landlords who use eviction as a business strategy, rather than working with residents who are facing challenges."

In July 2018, multiple community groups launched the Ramsey County Housing Court Clinic to help tenants and landlords. The clinic offers tenants access to various community and governmental resources, including emergency financial assistance and legal counsel.

Colleen Ebinger, vice president of the nonprofit Family Housing Fund and coordinator for the housing clinic, said over time, they have realized how the project lowers "the fighting instinct and just helps people to come to some resolution," which is often hard to come by amid the intensity of housing court.

She pointed out that property owners coming to the courts are often filing on tenants after two months or more of past-due rent, indicating they are trying to help tenants stay housed. But she said people using the clinic are often facing an eviction filing for nonpayment of rent after they've had work hours reduced, out of town funerals or other family emergencies.

"If you're a tenant and you don't have legal counsel, you have no idea how this is supposed to work," Ebinger said. "You have so much on the line and you're scared and anxious and no one is able to think their best in that situation. … It's hard to know if you're getting a good deal if someone offers you a settlement agreement. You don't know if that's good or fair or not at housing court."

In Powell's case, she had always tried to "be a problem to nobody" by paying rent on time and keeping the noise to a minimum.

But in the months since her eviction case, her three grandchildren have been fearful of making noise to the point where she and the children try to only talk in whispers and move around the apartment quietly. Despite winning her case, she is still "totally" fearful that it could happen again.

"It's pretty much scared them," Powell said. "I was going through a lot of crying and I didn't want them to feel like it was their fault. … It's definitely changed everything."

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280