Hennepin County was the first to create a program to provide tenants with attorneys in eviction cases

Hennepin County is the first county in Minnesota to provide attorneys for tenants facing eviction. Adult Advocacy Services added a housing practice in June 2021, as the state’s eviction drive began.

“This was born out of necessity,” said Terrance Hendricks, lead attorney for Adult Representation Services (ARS). “Hennepin County, like everyone across the country, was aware that many of the eviction bylaws […] would end.”

He added they expect renters with high rent balances who are not represented by lawyers.

“So that was a call to action,” Hendricks said.

ARS’ housing practice functions like a public defender’s office.

“People come to court and they are made aware that they have the right to apply for a lawyer and if they qualify based on their income status, a lawyer will be appointed to represent them,” Hendricks explained. “Our attorneys from ARS are here to represent you at this hearing.”

Potential clients may also contact their office prior to the hearing. According to Hendricks, there are 12 staff attorneys, each handling about 200 to 300 cases a year.

“It removes a tremendous barrier for a person willing to go to court because they know they have someone there to represent them,” Hendricks said. “It has also led to an increase in positive settlement agreements for customers. Our attorneys have been able to reach settlement agreements with clients that not only settle their eviction case, but also allow the eviction to be removed from the file so they don’t have problems in the future.”

Cases have ebbed and flowed at every stage of the exit, but then picked up when all pandemic mitigation measures for renters ended in June 2022.

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ARS’ housing practice recorded a total of 2,493 cases last year, including about 200 cases unrelated to evictions. There were 1,510 cases involving black tenants, while 543 involved white tenants. US Census data shows that only 14% of Hennepin County residents are Black, while 73% are White.

“What we have overwhelmingly seen is that a disproportionate number of people of color are at risk of eviction,” Hendricks said. “Our work not only helps to achieve some overall balance between the eviction process and the court process, but also to reduce racial disparities.”

Hennepin County Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette called the program “phenomenal” in an interview with 5 EYWITNESS NEWS in February.

“If you have a lawyer and they tell you, ‘Hey, this is the norm, this is what’s happening, here you are, here are our options, here’s what we can do,’ stay informed and maybe you win not, but you know what your rights were,” Barnette said. “When you are a citizen and come into a legal system that is foreign to you […] and you leave feeling like the process was fair and you were treated fairly and respected, that’s tremendous.”

The Hennepin County Housing Court experienced a backlog of cases as filings surged after the moratorium on evictions ended.

5 EYWITNESS NEWS asked the Minnesota Department of Justice for data on all evictions filed since June 1st. It showed that more than 60% of the evictions filed in Hennepin County in June were not resolved until at least September, with many continuing into October. Although the data didn’t explain why, some cases stretched into December and two were still unresolved by the end of January. Typically, cases can either be resolved at the first hearing or extended through a follow-up or trial.

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The time it takes for a first hearing has improved, but amid another wave of cases, a Minnesota District Court system spokesman told 5 EYWITNESS NEWS in February that it still takes about five weeks for a first hearing after an eviction was filed.

Before the pandemic, a hearing typically took place within two weeks of filing.

Judge Barnette concedes that providing attorneys for all tenants may have slowed the system down a bit.

“But I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “If a person in our legal system can have a lawyer and that helps them, I think that’s better for all of us.”

The Housing Court is also holding fewer hearings per week than before the pandemic began.

Hendricks told KSTP that ARS is willing to adjust if the court system increases the number of hearings per week.

“I hope that people across the state and maybe across the country can see that this model works and invest money in representation,” Hendricks said.

For related stories: Clearances Callan Gray Hennepin County Nightcast