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James Baron had plans for his two properties before the pandemic.

The north Minneapolis landlord wanted to paint the exterior of the duplex and apartment building he owns, replace old furniture in the common areas and install free Wi-Fi for tenants. But he’s holding off because of missing rent money from tenants amid the pandemic and eviction moratorium.

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Baron, who is also president of Gather Minnesota, an organization focused on helping housing providers, said he and other landlords are taking the brunt of the moratorium as their bills pile up with no financial relief or rent payments in sight.

“All throughout this process, the housing provider has been left out of the conversation, and our goal was to advocate for the housing providers and provide resources,” Baron said.

Small landlords are growing more economically and emotionally strained as the state’s eviction moratorium continues amid calls for social distancing and staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In surveys of landlords, Gather Minnesota heard stories of some taking out money from their retirement to cover bills. Some tenants had stopped paying for utilities. Others abandoned their units without notice. Some tenants are telling their landlords they won’t pay rent, knowing they can’t be evicted.

While tenants can access rent assistance programs and other social services, Minnesota landlords have expressed anxiety about still needing to pay for property taxes, repairs and utilities.

Baron has 17 tenants across a duplex and an apartment building in north Minneapolis. Many of them receive help with rent from housing assistance programs or Social Security payments.

But in the past several months some tenants have told Baron they would not pay rent for various reasons, including COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd. Some have abandoned their apartments with just a bag in hand, leaving their furniture and belongings behind.

“If I had that situation times 100, I wouldn’t even want to imagine how angry I would be at how somebody could act that way on purpose,” Baron said.

He said part of the reason Gather Minnesota, which launched in June, began the survey is because of “the lack of support for housing providers” in the state.

Under Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order, slated to expire Oct. 12, evictions are allowed in cases where a tenant seriously endangers the safety of other residents or violates other laws. The moratorium does not give tenants a reprieve from rent. Statewide, there have been 171 cases leading to an eviction judgment since the eviction moratorium began, according to the Minnesota judicial branch.

“It’s absurd to think that you can be able to pay the same amount of rent that you could pay before the pandemic,” said Sarah Carthen Watson, associate counsel focused on housing at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

She pointed out that during the moratorium people haven’t been able to work, have limited hours, lack child care, have more family members to feed or are high risk for COVID-19. She said it should be a priority to keep people housed, pointing out that landlords demanding rent “most likely have a roof over their head.”

State Sen. Rich Draheim, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Homeownership Affordability and Availability, said that the moratorium has worked better than he expected, as he’s heard from landlords who have continued to get rent payments.

The Madison Lake Republican acknowledged that for small landlords “having one unit not pay is the difference between a mortgage payment.” While landlords may at some point need financial assistance, he said there are not any mechanisms in place for that to happen.

“It seems like everyone has one sticky renter that maybe isn’t behaving,” Draheim said. “In the past there was a process to have them move on, and now you don’t have that as a landlord.”

For now, Baron said he’s focused on taking the moratorium one month at a time, trying to keep communication open with his tenants and gather more responses from landlords on how they’re faring. He expressed concern that some landlords may start to become desperate as their bills pile up.

“The tenant is going to get away with this and nothing is going to happen, and in the wake of that is going to be a mess,” Baron said.

Marissa Evans • 612-673-4280