The Potluck

Rent is due. Where is Minnesota’s emergency housing assistance?

By: - April 30, 2020 2:22 pm

Demonstrators circle the U.S. Bank Plaza in Minneapolis on April 8, 2020, to call for a suspension of rent and mortgage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Minnesota legislators have been mulling a housing assistance package for the past month, aiming to act quickly and fill in the gaps of federal relief packages as increasing numbers of tenants and homeowners are forced to skip making rent and mortgage payments.

Competing version are working their way through the DFL-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate with a lot more negotiating needed before there’s a bill that could pass both chambers. A final compromise may not arrive — if at all — until the final days before the Legislature adjourns for the year on May 18.

Senate Republicans want to spend $30 million on housing assistance with the stipulation that Gov. Tim Walz give up his executive authority to extend an eviction moratorium past June 24.

“We think the Legislature and (Walz) should be working together cooperatively on this. The governor should not be doing all this alone,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, referring to the eviction moratorium during a recent press conference.

That version must still pass the Finance Committee before it goes before the full Senate.

House Democrats want to spend $100 million on housing assistance and say curtailing the governor’s executive powers during an emergency is a non-starter. That bill goes before the Ways and Means committee Friday.

The money would come out of the $1.6 billion the state has received from the federal government for coronavirus relief, although it’s not clear the federal government will allow the money to be used for housing assistance.

Meanwhile, activists, labor groups and local leaders have called for a suspension of rents and mortgages for the duration of the crisis, arguing it’s the only way to prevent a tsunami of evictions and foreclosures as soon as the state’s peacetime emergency ends.

“It is not a matter of should people pay, but rather can people pay,” said Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison during a press call Thursday with U.S. Rep Ilhan Omar and half a dozen city leaders from across the country.

“Because we know that at some point, by no fault of their own, they will not be able to. Then, the families left without homes will be fundamentally destabilized,which will directly affect their health and safety, produce an even greater need for government assistance, and create a situation that amplifies crimes of necessity,” Ellison said.

But the “cancel rent” movement has faced skepticism even among progressives who question the legal — as well as political — viability of such a proposal.

Activists plan to hold another car rally on Friday, which is International Workers Day, beginning at U.S. Bank Plaza in downtown Minneapolis and caravanning to the governor’s residence in St. Paul.

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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.