As cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Newark make moves towards legally codifying the right for tenants facing eviction to have a lawyer with them in housing court, Minneapolis has taken a slightly different approach. Rather than passing right to counsel legislation, the Minneapolis City Council took a budgetary route, building on the $150,000 that Mayor Jacob Frey proposed late last year and passed a two-year service agreement for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid for up to $650,000 to provide legal aid for tenants facing eviction. Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is sharing the funding with the Volunteer Lawyers Network, a local group that they’ve been working alongside for nearly a decade.
Councilmember Cam Gordon recalls the funding decision being influenced by the activist group Reclaim the Block’s dissatisfaction with a proposed increase in funding for the Minneapolis Police Department. As the local City Pages reports, the city council chose to divert $1.1 million away from the mayor’s proposed budget for the police department and instead fund “community-driven public safety programs instead.” Ultimately, however, the legal aid funding came not from the public-safety money but from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust fund, calling for the City Coordinator to enter into new “renter support” contracts.
While housing might seem tangential to public safety, the Justice Policy Institute has found that supportive or affordable housing is a cost-effective investment for cities, leading to a lowering of corrections and jail expenditures and ultimately freeing up funds for other public-safety related initiatives.
While Minneapolis already has an existing agreement with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid to provide legal representation to low-income residents as well as another with HOMELine — another local organization — to provide legal advice, education, and resources, this funding supports tenants facing eviction specifically. Considering that the city has been recently rocked by the scandal and rippling fallout surrounding once-mega-landlord Steven Frenz, has recently ended single-family zoning, and residents are the audience for propaganda campaigns implemented by landlord groups, the decision couldn’t seem more timely.
“We did a study looking into evictions here. There were a particular set of landlords that had more evictions than others and it seemed to be kind of a business model. Certain people were stuck in that model because of how long that was going on,” explains councilmember Gordon. “Evictions have been a big problem in Minneapolis… One eviction can haunt you,” he says, referring to how difficult it can be to find housing with an eviction record as well as the sky-high deposits that can be demanded as a result.
“One of [the city council’s] big goals is, if someone has stable housing, we want to support stable housing where they are,” he says. Currently, roughly two-thirds of eviction cases in Minneapolis end with tenant displacement. “It’s our mission to try to address this and support that’s good for public and common good.”
Gordon also cites institutional racism as another reason to boost support for tenants facing eviction. “Some of our goals have to do with helping address past wrongs and racial disparities in our city. We have enormous racial disparities and a history of segregation in policies and housing policies that clearly favors one race or a group of white people over others,” he says, noting that single mothers of color are particularly affected.
Luke Grundman, a managing attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, sees other cities like New York as leading the way for other cities funding projects like this one. “I think those initiatives were backed up by a lot of data showing that giving tenants lawyers can really help,” he says. “Studies have shown that tenants get a much better outcome, but really the community gets a much better outcome and honestly landlords get better results, too. Their own housing is more stable when evictions are prevented and people are kept from being displaced.”
Grundman’s organization has been working on evictions for over 100 years and has found that most landlords don’t want to evict their tenants, it’s just the default process they turn to and often aren’t aware that there are other options.
This new injection of funding will mean that Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Volunteer Lawyers Network — two organizations that have been naturally working together since the early aughts — can expand their ability to help renters facing eviction.
Attorneys for both organizations are available at the courthouse to intercept renters showing up for an eviction hearing to answer questions they might have and to quickly screen them to determine if they qualify for services. “Most people on the calendar facing eviction do qualify, they’re predominantly low-income,” explains Tom Walsh, the executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Network. The new funding will support the network’s staff that, in turn, supports their volunteer lawyers, allowing the organization to expand beyond brief encounters with attorneys at the courthouse into more formal and consistent representation, a move Volunteer Lawyers Network has wanted to make for a while. “We do the recruiting piece and regular trainings so that our attorneys are able to give confident advice and representation,” he says, noting that their lawyers come from a variety of practices, not often specializing in tenant and landlord law specifically.
While the expansion that the two groups will be able to do is a massive step in the right direction, according to Grundman, there’s still more to be done. “One thing that’s been on my mind a lot as we expand and have more lawyers available to represent people in evictions is the existing system isn’t ready for us yet. There aren’t enough judges to hear the cases and there aren’t even enough space resources at the courthouse,” he says.
In addition to drawing out the court proceedings around eviction through mounting viable defenses for tenants, “we’re making cases more complicated and the system just isn’t designed for that. We’re realizing what we really need is the laws to change. The court process needs to change and that has to happen together,” Grundman says. In the meantime, though, both organizations are working within the system that Minneapolis has, determined to help both tenants and landlords navigate the eviction process in a way that leads to better outcomes for everyone involved.
UPDATE: Based on information from the Mayor’s press office we’ve clarified the source of funding for the city’s legal aid program. Also, we’ve corrected which legal aid group wants to expand its aid to formal and consistent representation: it was the Volunteer Lawyers Network, not Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.