Bills simplifying removal of tenants clear legislative panel

An apartment building under construction on June 13, 2023, in eastern Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight

PIERRE — Two bills that streamline the process of removing tenants from their homes are on their way to the state House of Representatives after earning an endorsement from a House commerce panel Friday morning.

Senate Bill 90 would remove the requirement that landlords issue a non-binding three-day “notice to quit” on tenants before starting an eviction proceeding in court.

Senate Bill 89, meanwhile, adjusts the required waiting period on a notice to vacate from 30 to 15 days for “at will” tenants.

The bills deal with differing rental scenarios. Evictions, formally known as “forcible entry and detainer” actions, are court cases filed to remove tenants “for cause,” meaning they haven’t paid rent for at least three days after its due date, have destroyed property or have otherwise violated landlord-tenant law.

At-will tenants are those without a set lease time, and landlords can give them a notice to vacate at any time for any reason.

Both bills have already cleared the full Senate. They apply to different situations, but housing advocates have decried both as proposals that will spark more homelessness in South Dakota.

“Both of these bills are intended to increase tenant turnover,” Karissa Loewen of West River Tenants United told South Dakota Searchlight. “That is the business model of slumlords, of people who prey on vulnerable tenants.”

Backers: Better landlord protections will spark development

Supporters argue that the laws cut red tape and protect the property rights of landlords.

The bills’ sponsor, Sen. Mike Rohl, R-Aberdeen, has called SB 90 a bill to protect “landlords who’ve literally mortgaged their lives for a better life” from “squatters” who would seek to draw out the eviction process.

The House sponsor, Mitchell Republican Ben Krohmer, told the House Commerce and Energy Committee on Friday that SB 89 tips the scales in favor of property owners in situations without written lease terms.

That’s how the law ought to work, Krohmer said.

“If there’s no contract in place, I do think it should default to the landlord,” Krohmer said. “It’s their property. They pay for it.”

Krohmer is a landlord, and he told the committee that his own leases specify longer notices. Those are better for landlords, he said, as they give landlords more time to find new tenants.

Rohl has stressed that same point in his speeches and testimony about the bill, calling 15 days “a floor” for notice. SB 89 is largely aimed at helping out landlords who would rent to traveling doctors or nurses that might not want to pay for a full month of rent on short deployments.

“What this is going to do is provide economic development in niche housing,” Rohl said.

He’s also repeatedly stressed that at-will tenancy is fairly rare, as most people have a lease that specifies terms. In those situations, landlords wouldn’t be able to use a 15-day notice.

As for SB 90, he argued that his bill is a benefit for tenants being evicted. A tenant served with a forcible entry and detainer complaint – a complaint that can’t be filed without a three-day notice under current law – have four business days to respond. Without a response, landlords are entitled to a default judgment, which in turn allows them to request a lockout from a sheriff’s deputy.

His bill would remove the first step, but add a day to that response time. Since weekends don’t count in the response clock, he said, a five-day window amounts to a seven-day notice.

“We’re guaranteeing that the person would have at least a weekend,” Rohl said.

Rohl also pointed to a story televised this week on Dakota News Now about a landlord whose rental unit was all but destroyed by a tenant.

“He’s going to stop renting altogether, because of all the problems that come with it,” Rohl said.

Opponents: Bills will contribute to homelessness

Loewen testified against both bills on Friday, urging lawmakers to consider the kinds of landlords she hears about through her organization. West River Tenants United fields calls from people facing eviction, and Loewen said most of them have tales of unsanitary homes, improper evictions, or refusals to renew a lease that come after a tenant complains about unsanitary conditions or other problems with their home or apartment.

One landlord moved to oust an elderly woman in a wheelchair last December, in spite of her being up-to-date on her rent and having lived in her home for three decades.

Landlords who engage in that kind of behavior will use SB 89 and SB 90 to take advantage of vulnerable tenants, Loewen said, regardless of whether they pay their rent on time.

“A lot of times when folks are voting on these bills, they’re considering reasonable landlords who care about their tenants,” Loewen said. “We need to consider tenants who are under a landlord who’s not treating them fairly.”

Loewen argued that the at-will tenancy bill will affect far more people than supporters suggest. She read from a lease that stated that a tenant becomes “at-will” after a year, which she said came from a caller to her organization. Another lease said that after one year, the notice to vacate rules default to South Dakota law – a sign that a lease may not be enough to protect a person from a notice that would force them to find a new home within 15 days.

Krohmer and Rohl contend that either a landlord or tenant can give notice under SB 89, but Loewen pointed out that the words “or tenant” do not appear in the bill. They also do not appear in the law the bill would amend, or in the chapter of South Dakota code where the law appears.

“It does not say anything about the notice a tenant must give to a landlord,” Loewen said of the bill. “So I don’t believe this goes two ways.”

After the hearing, Rohl told South Dakota Searchlight that a notice to vacate does apply to both landlords and tenants. He also said he’d be willing to add an amendment to make certain that tenants would also have the right to give a notice to vacate.

Tillie Bulman, a staff attorney for East River Legal Services in Sioux Falls, testified against SB 90. East River offers legal aid to people in 33 counties, most often for divorce and child custody cases and evictions. Requests for help with evictions have spiked recently, she said, with more than 100 appearing since the start of the year.

“In 2023, we received 509 applications for housing issues,” Bulman said.

She argued that the three-day notice is critical, in that it gives tenants additional time to find financial assistance or otherwise work through a way to get their rent paid.

Removing that notice but adding another day isn’t a huge help, Bulman said, particularly in South Dakota. Most civil cases offer people 30 days to respond to a complaint before a default judgment is possible. Evictions are unique in that people have just four days, and Bulman said a quirk in state law makes that timeline even more difficult to deal with.

“South Dakota law doesn’t require a landlord to file a summons and complaint before serving it,” Bulman said. “So we have clients who are trying to file an answer in the court to the summons and complaint, and they’re turned away because nothing’s been filed.”

Tenants can file an answer directly to the landlord’s lawyer, but Bulman said most tenants don’t know that. By the time they call East River, she said, it’s often too late.

Last year, she said, East River tried to help a single mother who lost her job for missing work to care for a child who’d developed a serious illness.

“Fortunately, through East River’s assistance, we were able to get her help in the community from programs like Interlakes Community Action Partnership,” Bulman said. “(This bill) still  takes down the timeline for a client to find alternative housing.”

More people will be homeless if the bills pass, she said, both because of simpler evictions and because people with an eviction on their record struggle to find landlords who’ll rent to them.

Committee backs both bills

Committee members largely sided with Rohl and Krohmer.

“I think this gives the landlord some protections. It gives them a chance to get rid of a bad tenant that they need to get out of there,” said Rep. Neal Pinnow, R-Lemmon.

Rep. Tina Mulally, R-Rapid City, said that tenants have protections from unscrupulous landlords already, whether they know about them or not.

“We always hear that ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Mulally said before her yes vote on SB 90.

She also talked about her own rental properties. She described herself as one of the “good landlords,” as she allows pets and works with struggling tenants. She also talked about a tenant who ducked service of an eviction notice for four months.

“I hate to go through evictions,” Mulally said. “But it is a process that has to be done, and maybe the bad landlords need to be the ones that are prosecuted.”

Rep. Kameron Nelson, D-Sioux Falls, and Rep. Byron Callies, R-Watertown, voted against both proposals. Nelson said removing the three-day notice is troubling, particularly if there are instances where there may be a miscommunication between a landlord and tenant that color the start of an eviction proceeding.

Lawmakers have trouble with miscommunication all the time, he said, and he urged his fellow committee members to consider the impact such issues could have on the less fortunate.

“The individuals who are sitting here in this committee probably have more significant means than a lot of other individuals across the state,” Nelson said.

Callies, before casting his vote on the 15-day notice proposal, argued that a month’s notice is a practical time frame.

“People pay their rent by the month. They pay their light bill by the month. I’ve got to disagree with this 15 days,” Callies said.

SB 89 passed on a 10-3 vote; SB 90 passed 11-3. Rep. Carl Perry, R-Aberdeen, voted against SB 89 and for SB 90.