When I spoke to housing attorney Mike Vraa about renters’ rights in July of 2022, he called housing court one of “the most miserable things you’ll see… it feels very factory-like. Like an eviction factory.” Nine months later, I observed a full day of in-person housing court to witness a process that more renters are encountering.

Evictions are happening at a higher rate now than before the pandemic. Evictions almost completely stopped in Hennepin County during the pandemic eviction moratoriums, starting in 2020. The last moratorium ended in June of 2022.

The eviction process

Evictions happen when tenants don’t pay rent, when tenants violate their leases or when they stay in a rented unit after their lease ends. Legally, an eviction only decides who has the keys to the unit– an eviction in itself doesn’t compel tenants to pay rent that they owe, though an eviction doesn’t dissolve that debt either.

Before Minneapolis tenants sit in that beige housing court room and wait for their names to be called, their landlord is required to send the tenant a letter notifying them that there is an eviction being filed. That requirement is unique to Minneapolis residents.

One complicated aspect of housing law is that it differs by state, county and even city, making it difficult for renters to find accurate legal information for their location.

Because the vast majority of evictions pertain to tenants not paying rent, the best way for tenants to avoid eviction is to pay the late rent as soon as possible. If tenants pay what they owe at any point in the process, they will avoid eviction.  The problem is that oftentimes, especially after the pandemic, tenants owe thousands of dollars in late rent, which is often much more than they can feasibly pay in a short period of time.

Regardless of whether the tenant’s case ends up in a payment plan or eviction, the case will stay on their public record unless they ask the court to get it expunged, or hidden from public viewing. In criminal law, cases aren’t public until there is a resolution; however, in housing court a case is public from the moment it is filed.

Once a landlord serves a tenant an eviction notice, the eviction is filed, and the process moves very quickly. A person with Hennepin County or the landlord will make at least two attempts to serve the tenant with the eviction notice in person, and after those attempts the notice will be mailed and posted on the tenant’s door. The notice will include court summons. Palumbo recommended that tenants don’t try to avoid being served in person, and said that tenants are upset when the eviction is posted on their door because it embarrasses them.

After the early days of the pandemic when nearly all court proceedings in the state were remote, the Minnesota Supreme Court designated some types of court proceedings to be remote and some in-person in June, 2022. Housing court was one that the Court designated as remote.

Hennepin County got an exception from the Minnesota Supreme Court’s remote hearing policy so that first appearances for housing court happen in-person rather than remotely.

I chatted with HomeLine housing attorney Andrea Palumbo about housing law before and after observing court. HomeLine is a nonprofit tenant advocacy organization that offers free legal advice to tenants. Palumbo said that landlords and tenants alike prefer remote hearings, and that more tenants attended their hearings when they were remote. In-person housing hearings are organized in morning and afternoon sessions. Landlords and tenants are required to appear for roll call at either 8:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. and stay until their case is called, which can sometimes take hours.

In contrast, remote hearings are scheduled at specific times, so there is less time waiting for both the tenant and landlord.

Attending a housing court date is very important for either party. When one party doesn’t show up to a hearing, the other party almost always gets a default judgment in their favor.

The in-person hearing usually happens within 10 days of the tenant receiving the eviction papers.

Witnessing housing court

When I observed housing court on April 24, both the morning and afternoon sessions started with the clerk calling roll. In most cases, the landlord’s side was an attorney without the landlord present. After calling each case, the clerk asked if the parties wanted to speak to a free attorney before their individual hearings. Most tenants agreed. A couple tenants had their own attorneys from local non-profits, but the vast majority represented themselves.

The courtroom was small, and most of the seats were filled when the clerk called roll. Attendees are not allowed to take photos or videos in the courtroom. There were two to four clerks at the big desk in the front of the room at any given moment, which was across from the tables where the parties sat during their case. A short, wooden partition separated that area from the general seating where tenants and landlords waited their turn.

Housing court in Hennepin County uses a referee instead of a judge. The referee is a barred attorney with almost all the powers of a judge, which a judge delegates to them, but judges have to sign all of the orders that referees make. Referees are used in housing and family law to help cover more cases.

Palumbo said that in her experience observing court, it’s common for tenants not to attend their hearing. It’s also common for landlords not to attend, but they usually have an attorney there to represent them instead. Her advice is to always show up to housing court to avoid a default judgment in the landlord’s favor.

At the afternoon session of the day, about half of the tenants didn’t attend.

At the beginning of the day, the first cases were called after about an hour so the first several tenants could speak with the attorney.

The first case started and ended in about 90 seconds.

The parties announced a payment plan to the referee with the first payment coming up nine days later and four more payments in the next two months. Each individual payment ranged from several hundred dollars to over $2,000.

Palumbo said that many people reach out for Hennepin County rent assistance on the payment plan on or before the court date, but these payment plans move faster than the county rent relief process works, meaning the tenants don’t get assistance in time.

The next case of the day went just as quickly, and the tenant asked for expungement along with their payment plan. Palumbo recommended that tenants ask for expungement in court because any type of housing case on a record, even if it’s dismissed, can prevent tenants from getting housing because landlords see a case on the public record and don’t read the results.

The morning session’s cases were all over non-payment of rent until a brother-sister duo, who looked almost identical, walked in with no landlord or attorney opposing them. The mood in the courtroom shifted to a more positive spirit when the referee said “you two must be siblings” with a laugh. That was the first time I saw a tenant smile all morning.

The siblings filed against their landlord because they said the landlord didn’t repair water damage in the bathroom for 22 days and repeatedly entered their apartment without a 24-hour notice, which is what their lease establishes. The two got a default judgment in their favor and won a rent abatement, meaning they didn’t have to pay rent until the landlord completed the repairs.

The rest of the morning moved fast with several more cases where tenants didn’t attend. In one case the tenant owed over $8000 in rent all the way from December.

One man cried. He was in court because he hadn’t reapplied for certification to continue earning federal subsidies for his apartment. He held his face in his hands for almost the entire time he sat before the referee.

There was an attorney for a big building with federally subsidized housing who held a stack of manila folders with different cases. The referee and clerks knew her by name and spoke with familiarity. Throughout the morning and afternoon sessions, the lawyer had about 15 different cases. She would sit and breeze through a handful whose tenants didn’t show, then pause for a tenant to sit, then later come back to breeze through another stack with no-show tenants.

Palumbo said that in housing court, people oftentimes schedule trials with the hope of coming to an agreement before the trial and canceling it, which you can do pretty much up until the trial starts. Housing cases that do go to trial are usually before a judge, no jury, and they are scheduled in 90 minute sessions.

The afternoon session went just like the morning session. There were about 30 cases for each, and around half of the tenants didn’t show. Each case ended in eviction, settlement, a decision to go to trial or dismissed cases. A few tenants rolled in expungements to their settlements. Most of the settlements consisted of high payments, oftentimes thousands of dollars, with first deadlines within 10 days. The payment plans were especially high because it was almost the end of the month, so May rent was bundled into the plans.

The landlords’ attorneys often asked for payments to be made via money orders.

There was one landlord, an elderly man, who represented himself in his case against a tenant who had been living in his rental unit for months without paying. He said that he had asked her to leave and she didn’t. The tenant didn’t attend court, and the judge sided with the landlord. She asked the landlord if he wanted the court to order the tenant to pay his filing fee, and he looked a little puzzled before declining, saying all he wanted was the space back.

What happens after housing court

For the cases that ended in evictions, the tenants have to move out before a set date. If they don’t move out by that date, the landlord is required to send the tenant  two notices before the landlord can get a Hennepin County sheriff to remove the person from the premises. The same process occurs when a tenant falls through on their payment plan.

When evicted, the tenant also has to pay the landlord’s filing fee and the fee to be served, which together is about $400 and they are still on the hook for missed rent. A landlord can file in conciliation court to get the missing rent, and the debt will follow the tenant on tenant screenings when potential tenants apply for housing.

After an eviction, especially a recent one, it’s extremely difficult to find housing. Many landlords won’t rent to somebody with a housing case on their record. Some landlords will rent to someone with an eviction of their record, but may double the security deposit. Palumbo recommended that tenants with a recent eviction try smaller mom and pop style landlords because there’s a chance to explain your situation.

My reactions to witnessing housing court

The most glaring theme of the day was poverty. There were so many cases involving subsidized housing with rent under $500, and one under $300. One of those buildings is a few blocks from my apartment, and every time I pass it I think of the clerks greeting that lawyer by name. This interaction stuck out to me because the familiarity demonstrated how common these evictions are, and how they impact our poorest neighbors.

The time between being served and appearing in court, which is not even two weeks, made me think of my customer service jobs that required 14-21 days in advance to request a day off. And the missing wages from that day.

I expected to see more evictions than settlements, but the opposite was true on that day. The payment plans in those settlements had such high dollar amounts that to me they might as well have been evictions. It didn’t make sense to me that people who couldn’t afford rent could feasibly come up with thousands of dollars in a short period, and so it seemed like a payment plan simply prolonged an eviction.

Each eviction moved so quickly that it sometimes didn’t register until after I’d made a tally in my notes that somebody had just lost their home. There were no outbursts like in the legal shows and movies, just solemn faces walking out of the courtroom. Housing attorney Mike Vraa’s term “eviction factory” made sense because a factory isn’t dramatic or sensational– it’s the same thing over and over and over.