Alanna Lofton, an East Grand Forks stay-at-home mom, is behind on rent. And like countless other renters around the country — many of whom are struggling as coronavirus wreaks economic havoc — things don't seem to be getting better.
But she says she’s “blessed,” too, that she’s getting help. Her husband, who works in the restaurant industry, has had hours cut, but Lofton said she has an understanding landlord who is giving her family until the end of the summer to catch up on rent.
"Between my husband working and my mom helping me, that's how we've been doing it. And my landlord is amazing, and has been working with us, because we are not caught up on our rent," she said.
Without that, the threat of eviction would be looming far, far sooner.
For many Americans, it’s already here. As the public health response to the coronavirus pandemic has driven the national unemployment rate above 13%, residents are beginning to struggle with rent or mortgage payments — or wonder where next month’s payment will come from. In North Dakota, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor shows 34,800 people unemployed through the end of April. In Minnesota, that number is 249,500. In Grand Forks County, state data shows there were more than 2,500 continued unemployment claims as of May 30.
According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, more than 20% of adults in North Dakota — roughly 70,000 people — were estimated to have missed a recent mortgage or rent payment or were in serious doubt of making their next one. And in Minnesota, that number looks to be nearly 13% of adults, or nearly 343,000 people.
Alieza Durana, a spokeswoman for The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, points out that many renters facing eviction concerns are — if they still hold jobs — often members of the essential workforce that keeps the country running through the pandemic.
"Our home health aides, our grocery store workers — these are the types of workers that are least likely to have health insurance (or) paid sick days,” Durana said. “They're also likely to be at risk for eviction, given the instability, the unpredictability of their incomes, and the fact that, for many years, they've been undervalued in our society and earned poverty wages.”
In North Dakota, the state Supreme Court suspended evictions in late March, but reinstated the proceedings in late April. That process, typically handled at its final stage by sheriff’s deputies, stole headlines in Grand Forks in recent weeks when an attempt to serve eviction papers led to a shootout and two dead, including a Grand Forks police officer. A sheriff’s deputy also was injured in the incident.
A police department spokesman referred the Herald to the local sheriff’s office for comment on this story. Grand Forks County Sheriff Andy Schneider did not respond to a request for comment.
In Minnesota, a moratorium on evictions ordered by Gov. Tim Walz, expires on June 12. It’s tied to a peacetime emergency declaration, an extension for which could be weighed in coming days by St. Paul leaders.
Locally, advocates say, evictions do not appear to have increased as quickly as expected. But even though those may not have surged yet — kept low by federal assistance or local eviction moratoriums — advocates worry that those protections, in their current form, are only set to last for so long.
"I imagine (evictions) are going to catch up. And I imagine if our economy doesn't fully open, we're going to see a lot more people with housing insecurity,” said Michelle Rydz, executive director of the High Plains Fair Housing Center.
When asked for comment for this report, the office of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum pointed to the work being done by the state Rent Bridge program — an assistance program designed specifically to help with housing insecurity created by the pandemic.
Government programs can be just as important for landlords, too, as experts point out that keeping landlords solvent means keeping their housing available. Not everyone is worried about a looming crisis, though — Jeremy Petron, a past president of the North Dakota Apartment Association, said in an email that the group does not have serious concerns about the future.
“Overwhelming majority (of affiliates) have stated that tenants have come through with promised payment plans for those who were waiting for federal stimulus funds or unemployment benefits,” Petron said. “Plus, as many businesses are reopening across the state, many are going back to work and receiving paychecks again. We’ve all been affected through the COVID-19 pandemic, as property managers also have employees, payments to service providers, taxes, insurance, and mortgages. It’s been our experience that most are working together in a spirit of cooperation.”
And at the Grand Forks Housing Authority, Executive Director Terry Hanson said he has only seen a modest increase in people applying for long-term housing assistance. Over 70% of the housing authority’s existing clients, however, have applied to increase their benefit, due to either a job loss, or working reduced hours.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in that,” Hanson said.