ST. PAUL -- For the past month, Minnesota housing officials have been telling tenants and landlords who need rental assistance that “help is on the way.”

That help arrived Tuesday, April 20.

Minnesota Housing Finance Commissioner Jennifer Ho said her agency posted an online website — RentHelpMN.org — where people can apply for housing assistance grants. People can also call 211, a helpline with staff available to answer questions about the program from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The state, large Minnesota cities and counties and nine Native American tribes received about $400 million for housing assistance from the federal COVID relief act that Congress passed in December. State officials expect to receive more than $200 million in additional federal housing funds from the American Relief Plan that passed last month.

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan had planned to announce the start of the program Tuesday but decided to do a “softer launch” while focusing on public safety issues related to the trial of a former Minneapolis officer accused in the death of George Floyd last May, Ho said. Walz and Flanagan will promote the new program later.

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Families hurt by COVID

Star Avery-Bradley and Teresha Winston say they need that help now. Both St. Paul women have lost jobs or income due to the COVID pandemic. They have fallen behind on paying their rent and fear they and their families will be evicted if they can’t pay up soon.

Avery-Bradley lost her job at the St. Paul Saloon when the business was shut down last year, and her husband’s work at Target Field and US Bank Stadium stopped when the Twins and Vikings seasons were cancelled or curtailed. She said she managed to support her husband, who contracted COVID, and two children by selling food she cooked at home to friends and neighbors.

Their landlord threatened to evict them when they couldn’t make a rent payment, Avery-Bradley said, but a friend persuaded him to let them stay in their home until they can apply for the new state rental assistance.

“If we can get relief, it’s really going to help a lot of people who can’t pay the rent because of COVID,” she said.

Winston still has a job providing in-home laboratory services, but since the pandemic hit, most homeowners won’t let her in to perform tests, and her income plummeted.

“I’m in dire need,” she said. She’s using the little money she earns to feed her two teenage daughters and meet their other needs. As a result, she was unable to pay her April rent and fears they will be homeless if they don’t get help soon.

Thousands expected to apply

Commissioner Ho expects 50,000 to 100,000 renters and landlords apply for the grants. She said she wouldn’t be surprised if 10,000 apply in the next few weeks because no rental assistance has been available since January. Last year, the state used $100 million in federal emergency aid to help pay rents.

Minnesota Housing Finance Commissioner Jennifer Ho
Minnesota Housing Finance Commissioner Jennifer Ho

Eligible renters can get caught up on overdue rent and utilities dating back to March 13, 2020. The program also provides for those at risk of falling behind on rent payments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To qualify for assistance, tenants would have to have incomes at or below 80% of their county’s median income. That would range from $41,750 for a single-person household in a low-income county to $105,500 for an eight-person household in a high-income county.

Ho said federal law prioritizes getting aid to people who have been unemployed for more than 90 days and those making 50 percent or less of the AMI. But she’s confident most applicants will be eligible for rental help.

Her agency has 140 staff ready to process applications, but she cautioned it will take some time to get a new processing system up and running smoothly.

To simplify the application process, she said, all participating state, local government and tribal agencies will be using the same RentHelpMN forms. Some 28 nonprofits and community organizations, called “field partners,” will help renters navigate the system.

Ho urged applicants to request “get ready” checklists from the housing agency to find out what documents will be needed to apply for aid.

When can eligible folks expect to get their first checks? “I think our processing time in the first month will be a little slower than it will be once this thing gets up and humming,” Ho said. She expects to get a better handle on the timing of payments in a couple of weeks.

“There’s no need to rush,” she said. “This is a lot of money, and it’s not a lottery. It’s not something that I think will be gone in two or three months… We could have this program in operation for the whole year.”

Marketing program

The agency will wage an aggressive marketing campaign to publicize the program, she said, including radio ads, signs on buses and posters.

“This is a win-win for both tenants and landlords,” Ho said. She urged them to work together on their applications.

The rent help is expected to prevent an avalanche of evictions of tenants when the pandemic ends.

Most tenants who fell behind in rent payments during the COVID outbreak have been able to stay in their apartments or houses because Walz imposed an emergency moratorium on evictions last year. He has extended that ban every 30 days since the virus hit the state 13 months ago.

But Walz’s emergency powers will end when the nation gets the coronavirus under control. Then landlords can resume evicting tenants who fail to pay rent.

To prevent tenants from being abruptly tossed out into the streets and state courts from being swamped with eviction cases, the Minnesota House and Senate are attempting to craft an “off ramp” law that would phase in an eviction timetable to take effect over several months after the moratorium expires.

The Senate, for example, passed a bill last week that would allow landlords to start evictions of tenants that damaged property or endangered other residents in 30 days while other residents could be evicted for non-payment of rent after 60 or 90 days, depending on their income.

The House is considering an even longer off ramp.

Editor's note: This story was updated April 22 with minor clarifications.