(FOX 9) - One month after Minnesota launched a massive rent relief program to help tenants through the COVID-19 pandemic, landlords say they've yet to receive a single check.
Minnesota launched its program on April 20 even though the system wasn't yet ready to send payments out the door, FOX 9 learned through interviews this week. The state's housing commissioner said the payment process should begin speeding up next week and characterized the rollout as a success.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers and the state's biggest landlord association describe the program as dysfunctional and raise questions about Minnesota's software vendor, which was fired in another state.
"This is not a pandemic-driven tragedy. This is a man-made fiasco," said Cecil Smith, executive director of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association, the state's biggest landlord group. "We need folks to get this fixed."
State housing officials said they expected to process $500,000 in payments by the end of Friday. As of Friday morning, they said people had submitted 18,000 applications but only 60 checks had been sent out the door.
Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho defended the rollout, saying it was important to launch the program and start taking applications as soon as possible, even though the payment processing was still in testing mode until recently.
"If we can test the front end and it works, even as we're finishing up the back end, let's open it up because people need to start applying, and we need to start working with people to make sure those applications are complete," Ho said.
Minnesota is getting $672 million in federal housing assistance money this year. The current program is stocked with $375 million in rental assistance from the December 2020 federal stimulus law. The March 2021 stimulus will ultimately deliver nearly $300 million more, which will benefit renters and homeowners.
Tenants who owe back rent can apply to get up to 15 months paid for through the current program, or 3 months into the future. Some utility payments also qualify. People must meet income limits to be eligible and should visit RentHelpMN.org to apply.
Software vendor fired in Rhode Island
The program's critics are raising new questions about Minnesota's software vendor, Allita 360, which has had problems in at least two other states.
In Rhode Island, officials "determined that to continue to work with Allita would be infeasible and jeopardize the success of the RentReliefRI" program, according to a document that outlines the process for replacing Allita.
In Oregon, news reports indicate a slow rollout and problematic website in a state that has a contract with Allita.
Brian Greenwood, the only listed employee for the Columbus, Ohio-based company, did not return FOX 9's request for comment.
Ho said she is not reevaluating Minnesota's relationship with Allita. The company has a $356,000 contract signed Feb. 17.
"I'm happy with our program and the way that it's running," Ho said. "It's a complicated program."
State Sen. Rich Draheim, who chairs the Senate Housing committee, said he wasn't familiar with the company but said he had concerns about Minnesota's rollout.
"I just assume they were vetted properly before we signed a large contract with them," Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said in an interview. "I don't know what kind of program in 30 days only gets 60 (payments) out. That's not a very good track record."
Smith said landlords were reporting problems with the application process, which he called "a nightmare." Property managers have gotten a spinning wheel on screen when they apply, and it's taken days to find out whether the process was completed, he said.
Ho said the program's early software glitches have been resolved.