The Potluck

Minnesota Housing says it’s speeding up rental assistance payments as thousands wait for help

By: - September 30, 2021 12:49 pm

Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said on Thursday that they’ve been able to speed up rental assistance payments and met a key congressional benchmark for distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

She also admitted that they’re not yet where they should be.

“I want to acknowledge how incredibly stressful this whole period has been for everybody, and our job is to continue to speed up the pace of what we’re doing,” Ho said. “That said, we’re not where we need to be.”

Minnesota received $673 million in rental assistance through two federal coronavirus relief packages that was divided between the state, large counties and Native tribes.

The state’s housing agency is responsible for distributing the lion’s share — $518 million — and to date has paid out $87.5 million in assistance through its program called RentHelpMN. Currently the agency has received 45,727 applications requesting some $270.4 million in assistance, which can be used for rent payments as well as utility bills.

Even so, Ho said the agency met a benchmark set by Congress for at least 65% of funds from the first aid package, which sent $300 million to the agency, to be obligated by Sept. 30. Minnesota Housing has 71% of those funds either spent or approved to be spent. That also includes money dedicated to administering the program.

Most of the applicants are desperately poor: Two-thirds of the applicants for rental assistance have incomes below 30% of the area-median income, or $31,450 for a four-person household living in the Twin Cities metro area. Two-thirds of applicants are also people of color, reflective of the state’s wide racial disparities in income and homeownership.

News that payments are picking up comes as Minnesota nears the next phase of the eviction moratorium off-ramp on Oct. 12, when all protections will be lifted for renters except those who have pending applications for rental assistance. Ho said agency staff have made themselves available to the courts to answer questions about renters’ applications and funding if they face eviction.

Having a pending application with RentHelpMN does not protect people from having their electricity or gas turned off for nonpayment, however. Ho encouraged applicants to apply for the Energy Assistance Program, even though a person can’t apply for assistance paying the same utility bills through both programs.

Renters who apply through the Energy Assistance Program must remove their utility portion of their request to RentHelpMN, illustrating the byzantine structure of securing government assistance. Entering into a payment plan through the Energy Assistance Program also protects people from utility shut-offs from October through April.

When the program was first rolled out, the challenge facing the agency and its vendor was combing through and approving applications from renters and landlords, which required multiple documents including lease agreements and proof of income.

Now, Ho said the challenge is on the back end with getting payments out the door.

But Ho said each month since they began accepting applications in April, they’ve been able to increase the amount they’re paying out. In May 2021, the agency paid out just $1.7 million, while in September they made payments totaling $41.8 million.

Ho said they’ve been able to speed up payments by adding more staff and because of new guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department that clarifies when they can accept self-attestation from applicants in lieu of formal documents for proof of income.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.