It goes without saying that the pandemic has changed virtually all aspects of life over the past year and a half. Lawmakers have struggled to balance public health and economic policies throughout the country. Businesses have also been forced to weigh decisions related to protecting workers and the public, while also trying to keep the doors open. One of the more interesting and evolving areas of law and policy over the course of the pandemic has been in the landlord/tenant arena – specifically in lease terminations and eviction court actions. In Minnesota, what started as a wholesale moratorium on lease terminations and evictions, has now evolved into a phased system that aims to ultimately return us to a pre-pandemic state of law.
This article concentrates on Minnesota eviction moratorium law. There is also a federal CDC eviction moratorium currently in effect until October of 2021. Generally, the Minnesota phased system has broader protections, and therefore supersedes the federal moratorium in most cases. Moreover, the CDC protections are limited to counties where there is “substantial or high rates of community transmission.” These numbers are geographic dependent and evolve every day; Meaning the CDC moratorium applicability can also change day-by-day, and community-by-community. For the sake of practicality, the focus of this writing is on Minnesota’s current law as of late summer 2021.
A bit of history is in order. Way back in March of 2020, and what feels like a lifetime ago, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 20-14, which suspended residential evictions, writs of recovery used to enforce eviction court orders, and tenancy terminations. The purpose of the Order was to protect the public health by ensuring that persons were stably housed during the pandemic. The stay ran with the peacetime emergency declaration time period. A second order in June of 2020 made some moratorium clarifications.
Then, on July 14, 2020, a third order, Executive Order 20-79, rescinded both previous orders. Order 20-79 was the framework that landlords and tenants worked with until early summer of 2021. Under 20-79, most residential lease terminations remained stayed. The only residential eviction actions that were allowed related to tenants who seriously endangered the safety of other residents, violated the law through certain criminal activities, or significantly damaged property. There was another moratorium exception related to lease terminations when a property owner needed to move a family member into the premises – but, in practice, that was a relatively rare situation.
On their face, the Governor’s moratorium orders did not ban commercial lease terminations or eviction court actions. However, the orders did ban aspects of the “writ” mechanism by which landlords were able to ask the Sheriff for assistance in enforcing post eviction court orders. This mechanism is used in both residential and commercial eviction settings. So, some interpreted the moratorium as also hindering commercial evictions. In practice, Minnesota post-eviction enforcement actions differed depending on how local officials interpreted the Governor’s orders.
Everything changed on June 29, 2021. That’s when the Minnesota Legislature enacted a law to phase out the moratorium. Minnesota Session Laws 2021 of the 1st Special Session, Chapter 8 H.F. No.4, Article 5 defines what has been called an “off ramp.” It contains multiple dates by which certain types of lease terminations and eviction court filings can occur. It also provides a requirement for advanced notice of eviction filings for nonpayment of rent as an added level of tenant protection.
Immediately after the law passed, on June 30, 2021, landlords could terminate a lease and file eviction court actions when a tenant was breaking the law by allowing controlled substances on the premises, allowing prostitution at the premises, unlawfully using/possessing a firearm, storing stolen property at the premises, seriously endangering the safety of others, and/or significantly damaging property. A landlord could also terminate a lease (but not yet file a court action) when a tenant materially violated the terms of the lease agreement, other than nonpayment of rent. Material lease violations are typically outlined in a written lease. They could include many things, such as repeated noise violations, unlawful guests, and/or other serious contractual breaches. The landlord could file an eviction court action for such material violations starting on July 14, 2021.
The next tier came into play on August 13, 2021. On that date a landlord could terminate a lease for any residential tenant who has failed to pay rent – provided they are ineligible for certain rental assistance programs. The landlord can then file an eviction court action for unpaid rent starting on September 12, 2021 – again, provided the tenant is not eligible for certain rental assistance programs.
Of note, a landlord must also provide a state law mandated 15-day advanced notice prior to filing an eviction action with the court. The law provides that the notice must contain certain warnings about the end of the moratorium, the amount or rent owed, and the identity of certain rental help assistance programs. Further, landlords who operate properties that receive federal subsidies may also be required to provide other federally mandated 30-day notices prior to filing an eviction action for non-payment.
On October 12, 2021 all Minnesota eviction actions will be allowed, except for actions against qualified tenants who have applied for emergency rental assistance and are waiting for a response from such assistance programs. Ultimately, the law will revert back to pre-pandemic standards on June 1, 2022. That will mean that all types of lease terminations and evictions will be allowed on June 1, 2022, with no apparent conditions.
That’s a nutshell summary of the whirlwind changes that have occurred in Minnesota landlord/tenant law over the past year plus. It has been a policy balancing act. Whether you think it has been fair likely depends on your perspective. That said, we can all hope that such difficult policy decisions will not be required in the future, and we can move on to a healthier post-pandemic world.
Matt Hanka is an attorney at the Fryberger Law Firm. He concentrates his law practice in the areas of landlord/tenant, civil litigation, construction and land use. Matt can be reached at (218) 725-6815.