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Landlord group sues governor, attorney general over eviction moratorium

The suit argues property owners are left in a bind due to the executive order.

A landlord group is suing Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison over the executive order that limits tenant evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association (MHA), which has 1,900 members, said in its lawsuit that Walz's executive order "unconstitutionally interferes with the contract rights of tenants and property owners." 

The association's main gripe concerns what it argues is opaque language regarding lawful evictions under the order that leave landlords at risk of criminal penalty. The MHA also points to the governor's termination of many other pandemic-related orders as evidence the eviction moratorium is no longer necessary.

According to the lawsuit, about 69,000 Minnesota households owe a total of $215 million in back rent.

The eviction moratorium was one of the few emergency executive orders he kept in place while lifting other COVID-related public health rules in early May. Ending the moratorium was the subject of fierce political debate among legislators this spring, though on Monday lawmakers announced an agreement on an "off-ramp" to replace Walz's order.

Walz's office, in a statement, said he is "committed to ending the eviction moratorium in a way that keeps Minnesotans safe and ensures certainty and stability for tenants and landlords." He also noted his work on the "off-ramp" with legislators, which would take a "phased approach to safely ending the eviction moratorium."

Ellison, in a written statement, said despite the drop in COVID cases and hospitalizations, "we aren't out of the woods yet."

"The Governor has reasonably modified the orders over time to create some common-sense exceptions," he continued. "We look forward to defending the Executive Order in court and believe we will prevail."

The lawsuit asks the court to find the executive order unconstitutional, and to bar the governor's office and the Minnesota attorney general from enforcing it.

'Widespread anger and frustration'

Walz's emergency executive order went into effect March 24, 2020, and suspended the ability of property owners to file an eviction action in most situations. The goal was to allow families and individuals to safeguard themselves and others from COVID-19 as the state navigated a once-in-a-century pandemic. There are two exceptions for landlords looking to evict a renter, one of which was added on Aug. 4, 2020:

  • If the tenant "seriously endangers the safety of others"
  • If the tenant "significantly damages property"

The MHA's lawsuit argues those phrases are open to interpretation, and were never defined. Landlords have been unable to take action, the suit continues, until things get so bad other residents have to call the cops, or the rental unit becomes "completely destroyed."

In addition, because of the lack of a clear definition for these terms, a property owner who moves to evict a tenant while under this executive order has to hope the exception applies. If that turns out not to be the case, the landlord could be subject to criminal penalties for violating the order. Compounding this was what the MHA described as "aggressive threats of prosecution" from Attorney General Ellison's office.

"This has led to widespread anger and frustration with property owners and managers who are legally prohibited from taking the actions that their renters are demanding: to make their living spaces safe," the suit reads.

The MHA says the governor could have written an executive order that achieved his public health goals, but was not so restrictive as to leave landlords with few options.

The suit also points to the widespread reopening spearheaded by the governor himself as evidence the eviction moratorium is no longer necessary.

"If it is safe to go to the State Fair, it is safe for property owners to exercise their contractual and statutory rights to remove tenants who have violated the material terms of their leases or rental agreements, " the suit says, "particularly when those violations have negatively impacted other residents' use and enjoyment of their rental properties."

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