”As Vice President of the Minneapolis City Council, I have been impressed with Dr. Lewis’ commitment to involving community in research and application around complex issues related to livability and affordability in low-income communities. Her academic rigor along side her ability to connect with community members in authentic ways are skills not readily accessible to many researchers in the field. Her work on evictions in North Minneapolis has proven an invaluable asset as the City of Minneapolis tries to address this pernicious issue.”
“As a result of Dr. Lewis’ efforts ranging from community-based research to local and state public policy advocacy on housing issues, our region is seeing increased investments from philanthropy and government toward eviction prevention, and renewed interest in substantial policy reforms. We also relied on Dr. Lewis’s expertise and community-centered approach to supplement our advocacy at the state legislature during testimony for improved, tenant-friendly statewide eviction expungement laws–she successfully brought a unique community perspective to the Capitol that is all too often silenced and discounted within those venues.”
Dr. Brittany Lewis is a Minnesota treasure. Her scholarship is literally changing the fabric of Minnesota, in a time where we desperately need it. Dr. Lewis research reports continue to impact my work as the President of the Minneapolis NAACP and as a Policy Research Associate at the Minnesota Attorney General Office. Everyone can learn and benefit from her community-focused approach to research, writing, and public speaking.
Single Black mothers face the highest risk of eviction in the United States. Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book Evicted: Pov-erty and Profit in the American City brought this national crisis from the margins to the center of public discourse. From 2013-2015, approximately 50% of renter households in North Minneapolis (55411 & 55412) experienced at least one eviction filing, a rate that is almost 25% higher than the 55402 zip code, which experienced the next highest rate of eviction filings in the city of Minneapolis. This disparity is particularly relevant given that these two zip codes contain just 8% of all rental units in the city. North Minneapolis is a community manufactured to contain undesirable populations through housing discrimination, decades of urban disinvestment, unfair lending practices, and disproportionate evictions; the situation has become further exacerbated by the rise in distressed-property investment.
An eviction, also known as an unlawful detainer (UD), often elicits the vision of a sheriff knocking on a family’s door with a writ of eviction and a group of workers removing and placing a family’s belongings on the curb. In its narrowest form, an eviction can be described as the forced removal from someone’s home. In reality, evictions in the United States are much more complex. The threat of an eviction filing or repeated eviction filings have become tools in the landlord-tenant power d-namic, even when they do not result in a tenant vacating the home (Immergluck et al., 2019). In fact only 22% (15) of tenants interviewed in the study had a writ of removal issued (i.e., the sheriff coming to forcibly remove the tenant from the home). A more holistic definition of an eviction filing includes “any involuntary move that is a consequence of a landlord-generated change or threat of change in the conditions of occupancy of a housing unit” (Hartman and Robinson, 2003, p. 466).
Driven by community feedback, The Illusion of Choice: Evictions and Profit in North Minneapolis project aims to answer the ques-tions of why and how the eviction trends that were highlighted in the Innovation Team’s report were taking place from the per-spectives of tenants and landlords themselves. CURA conducted a community-based mixed methodological research project drawing on one-to-one meetings, in-depth interviews, and crit-ical ethnographic observations, as well as Hennepin County housing court records and city of Minneapolis rental license records. In preparing for the project, the first step was to connect with over 30 local housing practitioners and those most affected by housing instability in North Minneapolis. The second step was to convene an Advisory Council comprising of tenants, landlords, community organizers, community-based staff members, and staff members from the city of Minneapolis as well as Hennepin County. These engagements helped frame the project.
For the project itself, a total of 100 residents (68 tenants and 32 landlords) participated. In-depth interviews were conducted with each participant who had either experienced (tenant) or filed an eviction action (landlords) in the two zip codes within the last 3 years.
- 100% of the landlords interviewed identified cheap acqui-sition costs as one of the primary reasons they invested in North Minneapolis.
- Nearly half of those interviewed have become landlords in the past 10 years and one-third became landlords during the housing crisis from 2007 to 2012.
- The most common reasons cited for becoming a property manager or landlord were that they “fell into the work” be-cause of a lack of professional experience or for investment or retirement purposes.
- The most common approaches used to mitigate loss by the landlords interviewed were cash for keys and mutual termi-nation of lease by nonrenewal.
- The least common approaches used to mitigate loss by the landlords interviewed were double deposits and lack of cleanliness. Of the 68 tenants interviewed, only 16% (11) paid a double deposit, thus supporting this statement.
- Landlords typically described their tenants using deficit-based language that often included references to high rates of unemploy-ment, domestic violence, driving while Black, getting pregnant at a young age, grandmothers raising grandchildren, no boyfriends on the leases, tenants being majority single mothers, drugs, and in-timate partner violence. These perceptions then ensure that any transactional breakdown in the relationship is understood to emi-nent from these presumed deficits.
- Almost all landlords expressed vocal disdain for the “crime-free addendum” that the city of Minneapolis was forcing landlords to use to evict tenants who made too many 911 calls.
- Almost all landlords interviewed ex-pressed a need for the Hennepin County emergency assistance process to be-come more efficient both in the length of time it takes to receive notification and in its ability to work directly with social workers and share information, and many noted a general lack of pro-fessionalism on the part of frontline personnel.
- Almost all landlords described city in-spections as a biased system, stating that code enforcement differed based on the inspector assigned. Landlords described feeling like they were being treated as “slumlords” while others complained about the city charging them for tenants’ actions, impacting their tier classification.
- In the two focus zip codes, 21% of units are Tier 2 or Tier 3—of lower quality— compared to just 8% of units in the rest of the city.
- When tenants were interviewed they expressed having to con-stantly make decisions under extreme distress. The “choices” that they had available to them were constrained by the con-text under which they were forced to move into the property they were evicted from and the economics of maintaining a household with limited resources.
- Only 4 out of 68 tenants selected the home they were evict-ed from because they actually desired to live in the property and were not forced to choose the location because of homelessness or desperation.
- Of the 29 that stated that the property they were evicted from was their first choice of housing, 25 explained that in actuality it was the only choice available, because they were homeless, they selected the property out of desperation, or they choose the property because no one else would take their Section 8 voucher.
- 68% (46) stated that they often had to decide between pay-ing rent or fulfilling some other financial obligation, which most commonly included paying light and water bills or car note or buying food and items for children such as clothes, shoes, and school supplies.
From the perspective of tenants nonpayment of rent was connected to the illusion of choices that they had been living under economic duress, but only identifiable in the fact that 29% (20) of the 68 tenants interviewed were living in the place they were evicted from with about a third of those tenants experiencing multiple eviction filings from the same landlord, which was 10% (7) of all tenants interviewed.
- Of those 62% (42) interviewed, the top two reasons tenants named for those barriers were their race or nationality 36% (15) and their criminal background history or that of a family member 31% (13).
- 40% (27 tenants) of the 68 tenants interviewed were either receiving mental health support services or sought out mental health services as a result of their eviction.
- Of the 68 tenants interviewed, 50 had court filings records available for analysis related to the address discussed in their interviews.
- Of the 50 court filings, fewer than 1/3 (16) ended with an executed writ, which means the sheriff had to come to remove the tenant from the property.
- Of the 50 court filings, 6 resulted in a judgment for the landlord in the initial hearing and in 7 the tenant agreed to vacate the premises, but the vast majority (32) resulted in a payment plan. Of those cases, 41 were for nonpayment of rent and 4 were for breaches of lease or property damage Of the remaining cases, 3 were filed by the tenants, in 1 the tenant abandoned the property and 1 resulted in mediation.
Social Service Run Around
When tenants were interviewed, it was quite common for them to describe their experience of applying for Hennepin County emergency assistance as “dehumanizing” and show emotional anguish or often cry. Interviewee(s) would go further and state that when they were in the process of applying and seeking support, they felt they were given the “runaround.” In short, the “runaround” was quite literally the process of collecting the forms, paperwork and permissions at different places, within a frame of limited information. For example, tenants were often told after the fact, that they needed a formal eviction filing to be eligible for services, forcing them to “run around” between social services, housing court and property managers to gather the paperwork needed to even apply for support services.
- 72% (49 tenants) of the 68 tenants we interviewed applied for Hennepin County emergency assistance.
- Of the tenants who applied for emergency assistance, 61% (30) reported receiving aid, while 35% (17) reported being denied. At the time of the interview, two tenants reported that their emergency assistance decisions were pending.
Dr. Brittany Lewis’s research used to successfully win Minnesota Supreme Court case on landlord retaliation
In the Minneapolis Innovation Team’s Evictions in Minneapolis report it states that nearly 93% of the city’s eviction filings were for nonpayment of rent. Similarly, of the 68 tenants who were interviewed in Dr. Lewis’s study, 81% (55) of their evictions were filed for nonpayment of rent. However, Dr. Lewis’s research findings highlighted a need to demystify what nonpayment of rent really means from the perspective of those most impacted. From the perspective of landlords (both nonprofit and for-profit), most stated that because they cannot get the support from local law enforcement to appear in Housing Court, particularly for lease violations, filing nonpayment of rent becomes the easiest way to get rid of “problem tenants.” What is not captured in this analysis and the existing literature, however, are the ways that nonpayment of rent is being used by many to disportionately evade tenants’ rights to be free from retaliation. Two Minnesota laws protect tenants from retaliation by landlords. One applies when a landlord seeks to terminate a tenancy as a penalty for a tenant’s attempt to enforce rights. The other bans retaliatory evictions under the Tenant Remedies Act (TRA).
On August 3, 2018, Dorsey & Whitney, LLP, submitted an amicus curiae (Latin for Friend of the Court; a legal brief submitted on behalf of a party outside of a case that has expertise which may inform the case). On behalf of InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia (“United Renters”) in support of Aaron Olson to the Minnesota Supreme Court in an appeal. Dr. Brittany Lewis was sought out for her research findings and proceeded to analyze the 38 tenant interviews that had been completed at the time and wrote an official declaration for the amicus curiae.
“We are attorneys with Dorsey & Whitney LLP and had the pleasure of working with Dr. Brittany Lewis in the landmark decision for landlord-tenant law,Cent. Hous. Assocs., LP v. Olson, No. A17-1286, 2019 Minn. LEXIS 314 (June 12, 2019). Courts rarely create common law and has not done so in landlord-tenant law for a long time. In many cases, a landlord will evict a tenant for requesting repairs and, in some, even for declining sexual advances. In Olson, the court held that a tenant has a retaliatory eviction defense from an unlawful detainer action under the common law. Dr. Lewis’s research showed the court the need to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction from unscrupulous landlords. Her work specifically helped Mr. Olson keep his housing and potentially many others in our community.”
— Tien Cai and Larry McDonough, Associates at Dorsey & Whitney LLP
After completing analysis of all 68 interviews, considering the anti-retaliation provision of the TRA and looking closely at those cases that fell outside its provision, Dr. Lewis found that there is much more behind nonpayment of rent that no current data has yet to uncover.
- Of the 68 tenants interviewed, 21% (14) reported cases that could fall under the anti-retaliation provision and 10% (7) fall outside of the limiting framework of the provision but provide insight into potential gaps in the current provision. Those 7 cases were inclusive of tenants who reported retaliation, because they refused sexual advances by their landlords, landlords refused to accept payments after an agreement was made, and landlords prematurely anticipated tenants not paying due to their plans to move. Although the landlords’ conduct violates the law, since they filed the evictions as nonpayment of rent cases instead of seeking to formally end the tenancies, Minnesota’s anti-retaliation statutes—in their current form—do not apply.
- Even when the anti-retaliation statutes do apply, existing eviction procedures make them nearly impossible for many tenants to access. Courts have not created an accessible way for tenants to assert the defense of retaliation outside an eviction action itself. Many tenants are unwilling to take the risk of losing an eviction case in hopes they might convince the judge that the retaliation defense applies. And those who do face a confusing, extremely fast eviction process to make their cases. And there are not enough lawyers to represent them all.
Of the remaining 47 interviews that did not fit within the anti-retaliation provision, a majority of whose cases were filed for nonpayment of rent, tenants stated that in fact their eviction filing was spurred by other factors, challenging our common-sense notions of why tenants are finding themselves one crisis away from becoming evicted.
- 22% (15) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by job loss, decreased income, or lack of resources.
- 18% (12) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by landlord mismanagement, such as filing an eviction for nonpayment when rent had actually been paid in full, or landlord disputes, such as landlords making verbal agreements regarding tenant repairs.
- 13% (9) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by domestic violence and/or trauma, crisis, or deaths of close family and friends most often connected to issues with mental, physical, and medical health.
- 7% (5) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by a conduct on premise issue most often connected to damage or nuisance caused by guests or a roommate.
- 7% (5) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by them simply not paying rent.
- 1% (1) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by a housing program failing to pay the rent on their behalf.