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Fighting for renter’s rights

group of people standing inside

Members of the ARS housing team.

When you’re already struggling with finances, an eviction notice can feel like the last straw. Scott, a 63-year-old Army veteran, knows this feeling all too well.

Scott received his eviction notice earlier this year, following just two months of unemployment. That brief period without a job, combined with a miscommunication over rental assistance, quickly added up to more than $7,000 in outstanding rental fees.

As a result, Scott was summoned to housing court, which is geared for cases involving landlord and tenant disputes. Three days a week at the Hennepin County Government Center and once weekly via Zoom, housing court is a fast-paced scene that can be filled with stress and uncertainty.

“People walk in, unsure if they're going to lose their home—unsure about a lot of things,” said Nima Abdirahman, case management assistant with Hennepin County Adult Representation Services (ARS). “Many of our clients also have trust issues because of their personal experiences with the system.”

Fortunately, attorneys and case managers on the ARS housing team help navigate the uncertainty for thousands of clients like Scott.

On the day of his hearing, Scott met up with Abdirahman, who quickly connected him to emergency financial resources, while his attorney, Juliana Cadavid Vaughn, helped reach a settlement with his landlord. Scott’s team also started the process of eviction expungement, a key step in helping tenants find rentals in the future.

“Nima and my attorney, Juliana, did an exceptional job,” said Scott. “They got stuff done, they were very polite, very professional, and it all worked out.”

A growing need

In response to the financial hardships made worse by the pandemic, the Minnesota governor established an eviction moratorium in March 2020 to help keep people in their homes. When that order was phased out in summer 2021, there was a spike in new eviction cases.

In 2023, Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill that gives public housing tenants the right to legal counsel when they are threatened with eviction. And, as of January 2024, landlords are required to provide a 14-day notice before filing an eviction for non-payment of rent, giving tenants more time to seek legal counsel.

For these reasons and more, housing disputes have become the biggest growth area for ARS. The team handled about 300 housing/eviction cases in 2021, nearly 2,500 in 2022, and 4,750 in 2023. That’s a 1,483% increase in just two years.

 housing cases graph

At the same time, public awareness of ARS is growing, thanks to online and word-of-mouth referrals, as well as outreach events and clinics.

Balancing the scales

In housing court, most landlords can afford to hire their own lawyer—unlike the tenants they are taking to court. To be eligible for ARS, clients must have a household income at 150% or below the federal poverty level. The average tenant in eviction proceedings owes more than $4,000 in rent.

“For a lot of our clients, it’s almost impossible to catch up because they’re living paycheck to paycheck,” said Jessica Carlson, ARS attorney.

“These are folks who lost their job, have medical issues, family emergencies—there are so many reasons why people fall behind on their rent,” said Justin Prentice, senior attorney with ARS.

Around one-third of Hennepin County households pay more than 30% of their income toward housing, making it difficult to cover basic needs. People of color are disproportionately impacted. In fact, nearly 73% of ARS clients are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

The good news: ARS has improved outcomes for thousands of clients facing eviction. As of March 2024, the housing team has handled nearly 7,500 eviction cases. Of those, more than 800 have been dismissed and 5,400 have reached a settlement.

“Everybody deserves representation, and everybody deserves to be heard,” said Abdirahman. “We’re going to fight for our clients’ rights and do our absolute best.”

Lasting impact

Ultimately, ARS aims to build long-term housing stability. To this end, teamwork is essential.

Carlson mentions a recent client who didn’t have a computer or phone and didn’t know how to apply for rental assistance. “In situations like that, having attorneys and case managers working together is critical,” she said.

County and community partners are also part of the team, ranging from rental assistance programs and mental health services to the libraries.

“Our goal is to provide a holistic, equitable defense, both inside and outside the courtroom,” said Jeanette Boerner, ARS director. “We train our staff to address housing discrimination issues, work with organizations that predominantly serve communities of color, and use an equity lens in our hiring practices.”

Abdirahman, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia when she was young, says her own life experiences have made her a better advocate. “I have seen some of the struggles my clients see, so I understand where their frustration comes from. It helps me to be more compassionate.”

Published 4/26/24