ST. PAUL — Minnesota will make available $100 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to homeowners and renters affected by the pandemic through a new housing assistance program, Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday, July 14.
Applications are being accepted from local and tribal governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, that wish to help administer program funds, the governor and other state officials said at an afternoon news event. Individuals and households seeking assistance will be able to apply in early August, with funds tentatively slated to be disbursed later that month.
"Minnesota faced a housing crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and for some Minnesotans, a lost job or unexpected expenses have put their housing at risk," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said during the news conference. "This housing assistance will help us keep individuals and families in their homes throughout this pandemic."
The announcement comes one day after Walz extended the state's peacetime emergency, preserving a moratorium on evictions, and nearly two weeks after state officials announced an agreement with 31 Minnesota banks and credit unions to offer 90 days of forbearance to homeowners facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.
Prior to the latter announcement, borrowers with federally backed mortgages were among the only homeowners who qualified for government-sponsored forbearance. Some banks previously extended forbearance offers and other relief measures on their own accord.
Housing advocates in Minnesota, meanwhile, have been fighting since March for the state to provide renters with financial aid in light of the widespread job losses the pandemic has caused. Postponing eviction actions, they say, will only delay the inevitable loss of shelter for tenants struggling to make rent until after the moratorium expires.
Homelessness advocates have said repeatedly that mass evictions could force poorer Minnesotans into shared living arrangements or already crowded shelters, potentially helping to spread COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Details of the state housing assistance program — such as the amount of assistance available to households — are still being finalized. Officials were noncommittal Tuesday about how long it will be of use and how many people it could help, though Minnesota Housing Finance Agency commissioner Jennifer Ho said that it is intended to benefit households earning 300% or less of the federal poverty level in addition to those affected by the pandemic.
Views expressed in administrator responses to the program's request for proposal may ultimately affect the way it is structured, Ho said. No determination has been made as to whether specific amounts of aid will be set aside for Greater Minnesota, as was the case with other state coronavirus relief efforts such as the Small Business Relief Grants program.
"We'll have the ability to move money around if we find that there's a greater need in some part of the state than another," Ho said. "But the most important thing right now is that we've got to get it out there."
There are concerns, however, that the program may be arriving too late. Some low-income tenants who could have used help sooner are now several months behind on rent, said Eric Hauge, executive director of the tenant advocacy group Homeline.
"It’s more than welcome, but it’s probably a drop in the bucket ... that’s a lot of rent due and probably not enough money," he said in a phone interview.
Officials said they sought to make the aid available now to offset the expiration of the federal program that has lately increased weekly unemployment insurance benefits by an additional $600 a week due to the pandemic. But during his appearance Tuesday, Walz lamented that the Minnesota Legislature couldn't come to an agreement on housing assistance measures proposed earlier in the pandemic.
Lawmakers tried and failed to do so despite broad support for them among housing advocates and property management groups.
"I certainly don't enjoy that these decisions have to be made through executive order or have to be made by the executive branch alone. I think there are really smart people who are in touch with their communities who are in the Legislature," Walz said.