With rent due, Minnesotans scramble to pay bills amid coronavirus

More than a quarter of a million Minnesotans woke up Wednesday, the first day of the month, having lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic and uncertain how they would pay looming bills.

Wednesday was the first day of the new month, when rent and mortgage payments are typically due. Increasingly, Minnesotans are seeking government aid amid the order to stay home, with no clear answer about when their companies will be allowed to reopen.

Gov. Tim Walz said the frustration from workers was the "number one message" he hears. Over the past 16 days, Walz has ordered thousands of businesses to temporarily shutter in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

"I know people out there, they don’t want to hear 'Be patient,'" Walz told reporters during a telephone news conference. "They need to hear results. I hear them loud and clear."

Last week's $2.2 trillion stimulus law will provide some relief. It includes:

  • $1,200 stimulus checks for most adults and $500 to families for each child under the age of 17
  • A $600 per week increase in unemployment benefits
  • A 13-week extension for workers who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits in 2020
  • An extension of benefits to freelance workers, independent contractors and self-employed people

The state's economic development commissioner, Steve Grove, said Minnesota officials expect to hear from the federal government in the coming days about how quickly the new benefits will be available.

Grove said it is taking between 1-2 weeks from the time someone applies for benefits until receiving money from the state.

"It's faster than it has been before," Grove said.

As of Wednesday, 272,766 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment in the past 16 days. Because of the influx, state officials have implemented a queuing system, where people can only file applications on a certain day of the week based on their Social Security number.

Walz said he hoped the combination of federal aid would "keep people afloat" financially during the crisis.

Last month, the governor issued an executive order banning evictions during the coronavirus pandemic. But the order does not cancel debt, meaning the rent and mortgage payments will still come due.

Gina Vinge, who owns a hair salon in New Brighton, said the hardship would set in during the month of May.

"Coming into April, it looks OK. but looking forward to May, it starts to get really scary," she said. "While we understand this is for the public’s health, it has great consequences for me and my family."

House Democrats and a coalition of landlords and tenant advocates are calling on the state Legislature to create a $100 million housing fund to help renters who've lost jobs. The money would be funneled through an existing program that would deliver checks to landlords on the tenant's behalf.

State Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, said House lawmakers are considering an extension of the current program to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. That would mean a family of four with a household income of about $70,000 would be eligible, he said.

Jennifer Spadine, who owns Guardian Property Management and oversees 850 rental units in the Twin Cities Metro, said she supported the effort.

"We count on rents to pay for the mortgages, property taxes, insurance, the upkeep of the buildings, the upkeep of the units, and to keep our employees employed," Spadine said.

Democrats said they would pull from the state's budget reserves to pay for the program.

"That's there for a rainy day, and it's a rainy day today," said state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul.

But Republicans said the state could not afford such a large program because the state's reserves will evaporate as the economy contracts.

"Some straight talk: There is no budget surplus. There is no budget reserve," tweeted state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. "Any 'new' spending needs to be paid for with offsets. Legislators should list those offsets with their proposals."