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Landlords struggle with eviction restrictions, lack of assistance during COVID-19

Aid and assistance for those who have been directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be coming in from all areas – grants for small businesses, stimulus checks, unemployment perks, and even rent and utility assistance.

One set of impacted individuals, however, is feeling largely ignored: landlords.

For more than a year, Minnesota has had a halt on evictions to prevent people from being unsheltered during the pandemic. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its own eviction moratorium to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has largely relied on individuals staying home. While this has been beneficial for tenants, specifically for those who put out of work due to shutdowns and other elements of the pandemic, it has left landlords and rental properties owners in a state of limbo.

Financial impact

“For a landlord, we still have mortgages and property tax payments we owe, but there has been no relief package to set that apart,” said Justin Ohnstad, a rental property owner in Owatonna who said that being flexible and understanding is an important part of being a landlord even outside of the pandemic. “We have only had a few tenants who were without work for short periods of time through all this and luckily we were able to work with them to stay current on rent to the best of their abilities.”

Todd Metoxen, the senior property manager for G&H Property Management located in Faribault, echoed Ohnstad’s sentiments that being able to work with people is always crucial, but especially during a time of global crisis.

“We keep in very good contact with our customers and have a software where we can email and text with them simultaneously,” Metoxen said. “In the last year I have worked with people who lost their jobs and contact me so we can work out a payment arrangement. We are understanding and so are the owners we represent … but there is a line and there are people who are abusing it.”

Overall, Metoxen said the renters he works with have been able to stay on top of rent throughout the pandemic, including utilizing different rent assistance opportunities provided by both the county and the state. There are, however, a handful of renters that Metoxen believes are abusing the moratorium and give him nothing but radio silence when he reaches out.

“It is so disappointing, especially now that we have RentHelpMN who will not only pay off the past debt but pay up to three months of rent upfront,” Metoxen said, adding that he sent the information out to every tenant who is delinquent by half-a-month or more. “We have the portals set up and are ready for people to use it and now we just need people to respond, but some won’t and I can’t understand that – it’s free money for them.”

What makes it especially difficult for Metoxen is when he has to speak with the property owners he represents, often individuals who invested in a home or two for their retirement or depend on each rent check for the home in order to make it to the next. He said that while everyone feels sorry for the renter, the landlords are written off and forgotten.

“I feel powerless to help them,” Metoxen said about taking calls from property owners who don’t know how they will pay their mortgage.

Unruly tenants

Though Ohnstad considers himself one of the lucky ones who haven’t been financially burdened with the lack of rental payments, he has been facing a different obstacle with the halt on evictions. Instead, Ohnstad is dealing with a difficult tenant they cannot legally evict.

“Outside of COVID-19, we would have ample ammunition to be able to free this tenant of that lease,” Ohnstad said, stating one specific tenant has violated multiple facets of their lease. “Law enforcement has been called, we’ve been cited as property owners for disorderly use – it’s a real struggle and a balance between the police department and landlords.”

Ohnstad said he went as far as involving attorneys and filing an eviction action complaint in an effort to evict the tenant. The moratorium leaves little wiggle room for a legal eviction, with substantial property damage and physically harming others on the property being two of the only exceptions to the restriction. The request was ultimately denied by the court and instead of evicting the problem tenant Ohnstad is now losing a different tenant who lives next door.

“I can sympathize with the tenant who is leaving because I wouldn’t want to live under those circumstances,” Ohnstad said. “But I will lose at least one month of rent because of this vacancy and even the next renter could be short lived because the difficult tenant is still right there.”

On top of the obstacle of still having a tenant that is breaking the agreements of the lease, Ohnstad said there will also be no restitution for any financial loss he has or will continue to incurred during this ordeal.

Ohnstad is far from alone in meeting a dead-end when it comes to difficult tenants, but there is unfortunately little that can be done at this time. In the end, Ohnstad, Metoxen, and others simply have to wait for the moratorium to end. Though Minnesota Senate Republicans proposed on Tuesday ending the state eviction moratorium in their first budget offer to the House DFL, the CDC ban is in effect throughout June.

“At some point the moratorium has to end,” Metoxen said. “And property owners are gearing up for it.”

On the horizon

According to Metoxen, the day evictions are back in play he knows of several property owners who will be filing for eviction. While evictions have been suspended, rent has not been waived, and landlords are allowed to file for evictions once the moratorium has lifted. Those removals can then be enforced.

“There is going to be consequences for some of these renters because they had ample opportunity to get help during the pandemic,” Metoxen said. “They aren’t going to be able to just skate away with this. That’s the reality.”

Not paying rent on time can impact credit or cause problems that impact future housing options and Metoxen said these specific renters who would not work with landlords and property managers should expect that to be reflected on their records. Though he knows the evictions need to happen once they are again allowed, Metoxen asserted that evictions benefit no one in the end.

“We do not want to kick you out, we want you to stay,” Metoxen said. “It doesn’t benefit us to have you move out and have an empty unit – nobody wants that.”

Ohnstad agreed that eviction is not something a landlord ever wants to use, but that there is only so much that can be done in certain situations.

“Even when there is assistance available, landlords can’t file for it,” Ohnstad said. “We can give tenants all the direction they need to do it, but it’s still on the tenant to take initiative.”

Plant science student 11th grader Katie Johannsen adds water to one of the trays of plants in the school’s greenhouse. Plans are in the works to add more plants to the space next year due to an increase in the class size from 1 student to 20. (Michelle Vlasak/southernminn.com)