As deadline approaches, Minnesota sits on pile of housing relief cash

Months after making it available, Minnesota is sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash assistance meant to help struggling homeowners and renters during the coronavirus pandemic.

In July, the state freed up $100 million in federal CARES Act money for a housing assistance program. As of this week, $67 million has been requested and just $47 million sent out to landlords and mortgage companies. 

Now, a deadline is fast approaching. Renters and homeowners must apply by 11:59 p.m. Monday on the Minnesota Department of Housing website to get assistance.

"The most important thing to me is that every Minnesotan who needs assistance knows we still have money available," Jennifer Ho, the state's housing commissioner, told reporters Thursday.

The CARES Act, known widely as the stimulus law that Congress approved this spring, requires states to spend all of the federal funding by the end of 2020. Minnesota set Monday's deadline for housing assistance so it could redirect any unspent money.

Gov. Tim Walz said they thought it was likely that Congress would extend the deadline to use CARES Act money. Walz said he expected Congress would include it in a resolution to fund the government later this month.

Minnesota has lost 184,000 jobs since February as the pandemic roils the economy. Gov. Tim Walz has twice closed bars, restaurants and numerous other businesses in an attempt to control the virus spread. The state reported 92 new deaths on Thursday, the second-most of any single day.

Lots of renters and homeowners have applied for housing assistance since July but for smaller-than-expected amounts, Ho said.

"It was just really hard to quantify the level of need," Ho said. "I didn’t promise the governor and lieutenant governor that we knew for sure we’d have $100 million in requests. We didn’t want to have less money than the amount of need."

Any renter or homeowner whose household income is below 300 percent of the federal poverty threshold can apply, if the person is unable to make a payment because of a coronavirus-related issue, such as a lost job or illness. For a family of four, the income limit is no more than $78,600. For a single person, it's $38,280.

No deal yet on cash payments for businesses

Walz was upbeat Thursday when asked about discussions he had with Minnesota legislative leaders from the House and Senate on an economic relief package that would send cash payments to struggling businesses.

"I would characterize yesterday’s conversation as the most cordial, bipartisan and hopeful that we’ve had in a while," Walz said.

But there's no deal, nor any signs that the divided state Legislature is nearing one.

Walz and House Democrats also want a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and $500 cash payments for roughly 31,000 low-income families. Minority House Republicans said any proposal should focus on targeted relief for businesses affected by Walz's closure orders. Republicans who control the Senate have not released a proposal.

This week, Walz strongly hinted that he would keep bars, restaurants and some other businesses closed past Dec. 18, when his current order is set to expire.