What happens to Minnesota’s $ 672 million in COVID relief rent payments?

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Retirees living in Hudson, Wisconsin, the Linnells own 10 rental units in the St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.

“We rely on our rental income to supplement our Social Security. We were self-employed, so no pension, ”Carol wrote in an email. “With four of our 10 tenants unable to pay their rent (due to loss of income during the pandemic), we are approximately $ 22,000 missing from our checkbook.”

State and local governments have received $ 672 million in federal pandemic emergency aid to pay off rent for thousands of tenants, but RentHelpMN’s aid payments are slowly flowing.

The Linnells’ tenants asked for help when the program opened in April. Almost four months later, the Linnells still haven’t received a single payment, and agency representatives can’t or won’t answer Carol’s questions about the program.

“They can’t give details,” she said. “We are told to wait … I am totally frustrated.”

Program administrator, Minnesota Housing Finance Commissioner Jennifer Ho, acknowledges the stress and anxiety experienced by tenants and landlords waiting for checks or bank deposits.

Slow deployment criticized

During a two-hour Senate committee hearing last week, Ho told lawmakers that as of July 1, his agency had received more than 28,000 requests for help. As of Thursday, he made $ 15.3 million in more than 3,100 payments to housing providers and utilities. That’s $ 4.3 million more than what the agency paid on July 1, but it’s just over 10% of the $ 151 million in rent assistance that was requested.

To those seeking help, she said, “Just know that help is on its way if you have submitted and qualified for the program. …

“With the amount of resources at our disposal, we will be able to pay for every eligible claim that has been submitted to date. “

But it will take time to make sure the money only goes to those who really need it while avoiding fraudulent or duplicate payments, she said.

The meeting was set to be a confirmation hearing for Ho, one of Gov. Tim Walz’s first appointments in December 2018. Some Republican lawmakers harshly criticized it for the agency’s slow deployment of the rental assistance program. . But housing committee chairman Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said at the start of the hearing that the panel did not have the legal authority to make a confirmation recommendation and would instead focus on collecting money. program information.

Ho was one of six people appointed by Walz who were rumored to be the target of a Republican Senate majority dismissal. But the Senate adjourned for the year on Thursday without acting on Ho’s appointment, and GOP Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said his job was secure – at least for now.

Originally from Fridley, Ho has worked on housing and homelessness issues for more than two decades. She had been a senior policy advisor in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama, previously worked on the country’s first comprehensive federal homelessness plan and helped launch the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness with First Lady Michelle Obama. Before going to Washington, she worked on housing and homelessness programs in Minnesota.

The costly impact of COVID

An estimated 69,000 Minnesota households owed a total rent of $ 231 million, or $ 3,300 per household, as of early June, according to the National Equity Atlas, a data tool managed by the Equity Research Institute of University of Southern California and PolicyLink research firm.

In Minnesota, more than two-thirds of housing assistance seekers identify as black, native or of color, more than half of households have underage children, and 41% of applicants have recently been unemployed, reported this month here the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. .

During the legislative hearing, Republican senators asked Ho about the reasons for the long delays between receiving applications and paying to landlords who have to repay rent and may not be able to pay mortgages, employees and other expenses.

The commissioner said her agency, which normally distributes about $ 30 million in federal funds each year, will distribute more than $ 500 million over the next two years. It changes the “nature, scope and scale at which the agency is to operate,” she said.

Last year, the MHFA set up a federally funded housing assistance program that provided $ 85 million in assistance to more than 27,000 households.

“We built the new program (this year) from scratch based on complex and changing (US) Treasury guidelines. … We are achieving our goal of streamlining the program for simplicity and conducting aggressive public outreach to reach those who have the most barriers to applying, ”including those with limited English proficiency without access the Internet, the elderly, people of color, people with disabilities many who are not used to accessing government services, Ho said.

“Our payout rate continues to rise sharply as the process gains momentum.”

Clear the backlog

In the program’s first 10 days of operation in April, the agency received 13,835 requests for help, she said. Almost half of them asked for more information from tenants and landlords.

This volume of requests created a “pig in the pipeline,” a backlog of requests that staff have just cleared, she said.

Then, in “more complicated than expected” stages, a company that MHFA hired to process rental assistance requests had to confirm bank accounts, tax records, ownership and other details, he said. she declared. That company, Witt O’Brien, has expanded its workforce from 115 processors in April to 215 now.

“We’re about to make things work a lot differently,” Ho said. “We are seeing more and more applications go from ‘submitted but incomplete’ to ‘complete and approved for payment’. “

The commissioner acknowledged that Minnesota’s deployment was slower than some other states – and that was intentional.

“We weren’t the first, and I’m glad we didn’t try to be the first because we saw some states that ran to get out first and stumbled a bit out of the gate. “she said. “We have been in continuous operation since April 20. “

Ho said she intended to be meticulous about spending the money properly because “I’m going to have to account for every penny to you, the treasury and the taxpayers.”

Deportations about to take off

Ho expects requests for help to increase after the Legislature passes a bill that gradually removes Walz’s ban on rental evictions. Starting this week, landlords can take legal action to fire tenants who violated non-economic terms of their leases. Those who owe repaid rent and are not eligible for rental assistance may be evicted from September 12. But tenants who qualify and have requested state payments are protected against evictions until June 1, 2022.

Tenants who have been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic can get help paying overdue rents and utilities until March 13, 2020. They can also qualify for up to three months of payments of future rent. Tenants who are at risk of falling behind in paying rent due to the pandemic are also eligible.

To be eligible for assistance, tenants must have incomes equal to or less than 80% of the “median region income” in their county. In the metro de l’Est, this income level is $ 55,950 for a single person, $ 63,950 for a couple and $ 79,900 for a family of four.

For help, go online at RentHelpMN.org or call the Greater Twin Cities United Way Helpline 211 (651-291-0211).

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