MINOT, N.D. — Earlier this year, as our society grappled with the realities of a global pandemic, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL decided it was time to leverage the situation for political gain.
They joined with several left-leaning groups, including the North Dakota chapter of the ACLU, in calling on Gov. Doug Burgum to issue an executive order putting a moratorium on evictions.
When Burgum declined to do so, party chairwoman Kylie Oversen took a break from hawking wellness CBD oils on Facebook to posture herself as apoplectic.
"The governor just said he expects working families to absorb the entire cost of the economic fall-out. Rent is due in two days and people aren't getting paid," she said in a released statement. "It's not their fault, and they can be kicked out of their homes with only three days notice. At best, late fees will pile up that could set them back for years. The governor, who is a landlord himself, just told North Dakotans he has no understanding of the challenges they're facing."
Despite Overson's aspersions cast at Burgum for being a landlord, it may well be his experience in that industry that led him to avoid the sort of overreaction the Democrats and their political allies were calling for.
The best data we have available to us about evictions in North Dakota shows that Oversen, her party, and other groups like the ACLU, were wrong.
The first source for data is the U.S. Census Bureau. Since April 23, the federal agency has deployed what they call the Household Pulse Survey, which, according to their website, is "designed to quickly and efficiently deploy data collected on how people's lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."
One of the data points they've been tracking with these surveys is payment status for renter-occupied housing. The numbers show some ups and downs in the percentage of renters who are paying, versus not paying, but nothing approaching the spike advocates of an evictions moratorium predicted:
Unfortunately, the Census Bureau didn't start doing this survey until well after the pandemic was already impacting our state. The most consequential policy made concerning convictions was a pause on residential eviction proceedings put in place by the state Supreme Court. That was initiated in a March 26 order issued by the court, and lifted on April 24, meaning it falls almost entirely outside of the window of the Census Bureau's surveys.
Still, we can perhaps see the impact of that order by the courts in the Census survey when we look at total occupancy numbers. There is a significant dip in the May 21-26 survey, and coming as it does some 30 days after the courts ended their pause, it may have been the result of a backlog in cases finally getting processed.
Still, occupancy numbers quickly rebounded, and there is little evidence of the crisis our left-wing friends predicted.
But, again, the Census data has a limited time window, and a not-insignificant margin for error, which is a point Jessica Thomasson made when I contacted her for state-level data on this issue.
Thomasson was appointed by Burgum last year to be the director of community inclusion at the Department of Human Services. She wasn't aware of the Census pulse surveys when I contacted her, but after reviewing them, noted the North Dakota-specific data "have a not-insignificant margin of error which would suggest caution."
What Thomasson has been tracking is the number of eviction filings in judgments in the state's courts. She provided me with this graph showing daily numbers for those metrics going back to March of last year.
While we can certainly see the impact of the court-ordered pause on residential eviction activities -- that's the dip from late March to late April -- what we can't see is the spike in evictions touted as inevitable by those calling for Burgum to act:
After the dip, eviction filings and judgments returned to a level that's about in line with pre-pandemic levels.
We know thousands and thousands of North Dakotans have lost their jobs or been economically impacted in other ways by the coronavirus pandemic. That situation is very real, and shouldn't be discounted, but it hasn't manifested itself in a housing crisis.
Some people have missed rent payments and have even been evicted because of the pandemic, and that's a bad situation. But if Burgum had heeded the calls from Democrats like Oversen and others and implemented some sort of a moratorium on evictions, he would have exacerbated the situation.
Let's be glad he didn't.
So much political debate focuses on what our elected leaders ought to do. We need to recognize that, very often, what elected leaders choose not to do is just as important as what they do.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.