FARGO — The North Dakota Supreme Court suspended all housing evictions in light of the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, March 26, but did not take other steps that tenant advocates are seeking.
"Additional federal and state entities have declared public health emergencies due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recommended limiting contact between individuals," the court's order said. "This has resulted in the closure of public facilities, including courthouses. It is hereby ordered: All residential eviction proceedings ... are suspended until further order of the court."
Days before the court order, a public outcry against landlords forcing out-of-work tenants to pay rent on time or face late fees during the pandemic stretched across the state to Gov. Doug Burgum's office.
Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, sent a letter to Burgum on Thursday,asking him to ban rental and mortgage evictions, foreclosures, utility shut-offs, and related late fees during the pandemic.
“Through no fault of their own, people have lost their jobs, had their paychecks eliminated or reduced, and have limited or no resources to withstand the crisis," Schneider wrote. "They are petrified about losing their housing and having to find alternative and affordable shelter during a pandemic — or possibly becoming homeless."
When Schneider learned of the court's order Thursday, she applauded the move but said it wasn't enough.
"It is certainly a helpful move on the part of the court," but it doesn't eliminate evictions, foreclosures, late fees and utility shutoffs, Schneider said in a phone interview. "It just doesn't address the full continuum of problems people face."
The High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks has been working to form a grassroots coalition to flood the governor's office with telephone calls asking for such a ban, and the group plans to continue calling for at least three days, said Michelle Rydz, the center's executive director. Her goal is to force an eviction freeze that “comes from the top,” she said.
“Burgum could put that moratorium on, and that would help relieve a lot of stress,” Rydz said.
During a press conference Thursday, Burgum said the matter of evictions was still under discussion, but did not elaborate.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, March 23, signed an order barring landlords from filing for eviction in court until the order is rescinded or until the peacetime emergency that Walz declared is over. Tenants, however, still have to pay their rent.
Fargo City Commissioner John Strand said there are many other issues that renters face, and if the situation is not rectified to his satisfaction by Monday, April 6, the next commission meeting, he will do everything he "can to provide additional levels of reprieve and relief."
Strand, who is in self-quarantine due to recent travel to Florida, also issued a stern warning to area landlords intent on receiving public funds.
“If landlords want hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks, then I hope we all pay attention to the treatment of tenants,” Strand said. “Meantime, there are a lot of apartment developers who get a lot, a lot of tax breaks. So I think that’s an element to weigh at the right points: How are they, how did they, how will they treat the tenants who are all of the sudden unemployed or challenged financially because of this pandemic?”
People in the area, across the state and all over the United States are organizing on social media under political organizations like Rent Strike 2020, which has attracted more than 8,000 followers on Facebook. Many are calling for tenants to collectively refuse to pay rents during the pandemic.
Some area landlords are sending out notices for tenants to pay rent or face late fees, or worse, Rydz said, and then adding the names of agencies that might be able to help, “which is ludicrous,” she said.
“The message is that these are your tenants, that two weeks ago they were paying rent on time. Through no fault of their own they lost their jobs, they lost their livelihood,” Rydz said.