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With deadline looming, Minnesota has yet to distribute millions in federal housing relief

In July, Gov. Tim Walz announced plans to distribute $100 million in housing assistance to Minnesotans who were at risk of losing their homes because of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Six months later, more than a quarter of the money has yet to reach homeowners and renters in need — and time is running out.

More than 28,000 low-income households across the state have applied for relief under the federally funded program, which was designed to prevent evictions and homelessness among the growing number of people struggling to make ends meet because of COVID-19. The funds can be used to cover back-due rent, mortgage payments, utility bills and other housing-related expenses, provided the applicant’s financial hardship was caused by the pandemic.

Yet families have sought less aid than expected amid a rushed timeline, and approximately $30 million of the allocated moneys had not been dispersed as of Nov. 30, according to state data.

Now struggling homeowners and renters have until midnight on Monday to apply for relief under the program. Any housing assistance funds that go unspent would go back to state coffers and be redeployed toward other pandemic-related needs, Minnesota Housing officials said.

At a press event Thursday, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan made a final plea for people to take advantage of the benefits before the program expires.

“Minnesota has faced a housing crisis for a very long time, and the pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated that crisis. It did not create it,” said Flanagan, who encouraged people to call “211” to apply for assistance. “It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that everyone has a place safe to be.”

The urgent call comes as the surging number of COVID-19 cases and new lockdown measures threaten many low-wage jobs, particularly in the restaurant and retail sectors. Those losing their jobs or getting their hours cut are struggling with rents.

Making tough choices

As October ended, an estimated 42,292 Minnesota households were unable to pay their rent, and an even greater number of households — over 80,000 — were delaying rent payments until later in the month, according to a monthly survey of owners and managers of rental units. Statewide, the total amount of unpaid rent due to the pandemic had topped $100 million through the end of October, the survey found.

State housing officials are trying to prevent more people from losing their homes at a time when the state’s safety net for the homeless is facing unprecedented strain. In the Twin Cities metro area, the number of people sleeping outside in tents has spiked, partly because they fear catching the coronavirus in large shelters where physical distancing is impossible.

Counties have responded by moving hundreds of people at high risk of catching the virus to hotel rooms, where outreach workers have been trying to transition them into more stable housing. In Hennepin County alone, officials have sheltered more than 1,300 homeless people in hotels since the pandemic began.

But even before the virus arrived in Minnesota, a combination of rising rents, limited affordable housing and an opioid epidemic were driving more people to the streets.

A statewide count on a single night in January found that 7,940 Minnesotans were homeless, virtually unchanged from 2019. But the number of people who were “unsheltered” — those sleeping outside and not in emergency shelters — had increased 18% from the previous year to 1,949, more than double since 2014.

“The need is very, very significant,” said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center, a legal advocacy group for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. “We are seeing growing numbers of Minnesotans having to make the really difficult choice between paying the rent or not paying for food or for healthcare.”

Facing delays, confusion

The $100 million housing assistance program, among the largest allocations of federal COVID-19 relief funds in Minnesota, was heralded when it was rolled out in August. To qualify, a household had to have a past-due rent, mortgage or other housing expense incurred after March 1, and the inability to make the payment due to unemployment, illness or another COVID-19 related issue. Funding came from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.

Yet early on, there was confusion over how to apply and who would qualify for the benefits, housing advocates say. Some tenants and homeowners thought they had to be sickened by the coronavirus or in the process of being evicted. Others lacked the internet access necessary to apply online, or simply weren’t aware of the program, advocates said.

Because of heavy demand, the program also was challenged by delays; many people have had to wait several weeks or longer for their applications to be processed.

Hennepin County was among the most aggressive promoters of the housing assistance program. Starting in November, the county has been pushing the program on social media and even on TV, running ads during Monday Night Football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The program so far has had a far-reaching impact, benefiting renters and homeowners in every county in the state. As of Nov. 30, applicants had requested $67.2 million in assistance, with more than half that money being sought for rental assistance; nearly a quarter of the applicants have experienced homelessness.

The rate of applications varies greatly by county, with Beltrami and Mahnomen counties in northern Minnesota having the highest number of applicants as a percentage of their populations.

“Part of the challenge with COVID is that we’re trying to do things to be helpful so fast that we don’t always figure it out before it’s implemented,” said Monica Nilsson, executive director of Haven Housing, a nonprofit in north Minneapolis that provides shelter and housing. “But there is no question the need is there.”

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres

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©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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