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Held over bill aims to provide lawyers to public housing tenants facing evictions

Public housing mostly serves the needs of senior citizens, the disabled, and low-income individuals.

Precisely the people who might not be able to afford legal counsel in landlord disputes.

Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights) sponsors a plan to “level the playing field” by requiring a court to appoint counsel to represent public housing tenants who can’t afford an attorney in certain housing eviction cases.

HF450, as amended, was held over Tuesday by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF1290, sponsored by Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Mpls), awaits action by the Senate Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee.

“The bill is designed to level the playing field between public housing tenants and public housing authorities, which are represented by publicly funded attorneys,” Richardson said.

It would require the eviction complaint to include notice to tenants that they are entitled to counsel if they cannot afford an attorney and require the court to explain this to the defendant at the initial eviction hearing.

Richardson cited a 2018 study by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Volunteer Lawyers Network studying evictions in Hennepin County showing that unrepresented tenants are between four and five times more likely than fully represented tenants to face forced eviction.

“With representation we see better outcomes for families,” Richardson said.

The bill specifically excludes cases of eviction for rent non-payment.

Minnesota is one of seven states where landlords are not required to provide tenants notice before filing an eviction, said Larry McDonough, senior Minnesota counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Therefore, Minnesota has one of the fastest eviction processes in the nation, he said, which doesn’t allow tenants adequate time to seek financial assistance, prepare a defense or secure legal counsel.

“Having an attorney for the tenant to balance off the attorney for the housing authority just adds the due process that I think we all like to see in the court system,” McDonough said.

The bill would require district courts to work with public housing attorneys, legal aid attorneys and members of the private bar to establish a compensation rate for attorney’s fees and costs to provide representation in the public housing eviction cases.

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) said the bill would impose unknown costs to counties, which makes him less likely to support the proposal.

A fiscal note is forthcoming, Richardson said, adding that the narrow focus of the bill means that it would only apply to an estimated 60 cases statewide annually at a cost of about $1,000 per case.

The study of Hennepin County evictions also shows that fully represented tenants are four times less likely to use homeless shelters, Richardson said, which could save counties from spending money on services for the homeless.

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