State lawmakers propose $100M renter bailout as unemployment soars

    apartment building
    An apartment building in St. Paul, Minnesota in February 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

    Rent is due today for the first time since more than 270,000 Minnesotans lost their jobs because of COVID-19, many of them in low-paying restaurant and retail jobs.

    Unemployment insurance only covers a fraction of people’s previous earnings, which puts the 44% of renters who already pay more than they can afford on housing in an especially precarious situation.

    State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing for a rental and mortgage assistance program on top of massive state and federal relief packages.

    “We want to make sure we’re providing resources so that renters have the ability to make their rent and landlords have the ability to make their mortgage. We’re all in this together,” said Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, during a press conference Wednesday.

    DFL House lawmakers want to spend $100 million — a figure based on research by housing advocates — to help Minnesotans affected by COVID-19 keep making their housing payments.

    That research estimates the average unemployment check for food service workers would be $1,032 per month and $1,298 per month for retail workers. That estimate doesn’t include the additional $600 per week unemployed Americans will receive for four months under the $2.2 trillion federal relief package passed by Congress last month.

    The proposal has received support from landlords and Republicans, although the exact details of who will receive housing support and how much is unclear.

    Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, said she thinks the Legislature should appropriate a much smaller amount to start, in the range of $10 million to $30 million.

    “We want to make sure the money goes to those that are the hardest hit and are struggling the most,” said Theis, who owns several rental properties in the state.

    The governor issued an executive order earlier this month halting evictions during the peacetime emergency. Although the order prevents people from being forced out of their homes during this health crisis, it doesn’t eliminate their obligation to pay rent.

    Failing to pay rent can still damage renters’ credit scores and rental histories and could lead to late fees and even eviction after the peacetime emergency ends.

    “With this particular health crisis, it’s in our best interest as a state to assure that all of those individuals, whether they’re renters or landlords or small businesses, are kept housed and safe and stable,” said Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs a House housing committee.

    Max Nesterak
    Max Nesterak is a reporter for the Reformer focusing 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.