Minnesota launches $375 million rent help program, finally

Minnesota housing officials have launched a $375 million federally-backed rental assistance program after several weeks of bureaucratic delays.

The state is opened an application portal for struggling renters at RentHelpMN.org. Minnesota has been taking applications for 10 days but hasn't cut a check yet.

"I am standing on a tightrope with compliance on my right and people who desperately need this program on the left," Minnesota housing commissioner Jennifer Ho told reporters at a Friday news conference. She said the federal government requires a full review of completed applications before approving money.

Eligible renters can get up to 15 months of rent paid by the government, either retroactively to March 20 or into the future. Renters must owe back rent, have lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, and meet income limits. In the Twin Cities Metro, a single renter must make less than $54,950, while the income limit for a family of four is $78,500.

Congress approved the money in the December 2020 stimulus package but few states have gotten programs up and running. Unlike a previous relief program that applied to both homeowners and renters, this version applies only to renters.

Christina Harding, a property manager in St. Paul, said some of her tenants are 10 months behind on their rents. Without income, Harding said she was forced to collect unemployment.

"We're very excited for this program. Hopefully, it starts paying quickly," she said, "so we can get these owners' mortgages paid again and they don’t have to worry about when the rent’s going to come in."

But the Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which represents landlords, criticized the program's slow rollout.

"There was no collaboration with the people it was intended to serve. Now renters and property owners are having a painful experience that only compounds the effects of the pandemic further," Cecil Smith, the group's chief executive, said in an emailed statement.

The money is a key piece to the eventual end of Minnesota's ban on evictions, which Gov. Tim Walz put in place in March 2020 using his emergency powers. Minnesota is one of a shrinking number of states that have such bans, which were designed to help tenants who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Walz said Friday that he would only end the moratorium if the divided state Legislature created a phase-out period. Lawmakers are split on what should replace the eviction ban.

Senate Republicans have proposed an off-ramp of between 30 and 90 days, after which landlords could evict renters unless they're applying for the federally backed rental assistance program.

"We have the vaccine. We’re all the way down to 16 year olds (who are eligible)," Senate Housing committee chairman Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said in an interview. "We’re running out of excuses. Most states have already done it. it’s Minnesota’s turn. Let’s do it."

Thursday evening, the DFL-led House passed legislation that forces landlords to give 60 days' notice before evicting a tenant over the next year.

Walz said he was optimistic that lawmakers would strike a deal before they adjourn May 17. But Draheim characterized the split between the House and Senate as "huge."