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Speaking to lawmakers, state’s top housing official offers explanation for abrupt end to rental assistance program

Applications to Minnesota's Emergency Rental Assistance program surged last month shortly before the program ended abruptly on Jan. 28. (Graphic courtesy Minnesota Housing)
Applications to Minnesota's Emergency Rental Assistance program surged last month shortly before the program ended abruptly on Jan. 28. (Graphic courtesy Minnesota Housing)

Minnesota renters were aided by the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program in response to increasing burdens caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some wondered why it ended so abruptly on Jan. 28, 2022, despite the ongoing pandemic.

An increasing load of applications coupled with decreasing funds forced the sudden deadline, which was set just three weeks prior, Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho told the House Housing Finance and Policy Committee Tuesday.

Applications for RentHelpMN surged in January to 22,600, more than double the next highest month since the program started in April 2021.

“As we were watching the pace of applications pick up, it became clear by mid-January that the odds of being able to have enough money to be able to pay February rent were rapidly decreasing,” Ho said. “It was hard to imagine what we do if you had allowed a bunch of people to apply for February assistance and ran out of money.”

House Housing Finance and Policy Committee 2/8/22

The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency received 100,217 applications through the RentHelpMN program as of Jan. 28, accounting for $542.5 million in requested assistance. Ho said 84,160 payments have been made, accounting for $374 million in assistance.

The Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance program allocated $300 million to Minnesota in December 2020 and $237 million in March 2021.

The Housing Finance Agency twice asked for more federal funding. A $231 million request in November was denied and Ho doesn’t expect to receive anything from the $212 million request made last month.

January brought more applications than expected. Ho mentioned possible reasons as the child tax credit payments ending, utility rates increasing, and surges in case rates and economic impact of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

“If I had guessed on Dec. 31 when would I need to close the program, I wouldn’t have guessed Jan. 28,” Ho said. “But if I didn’t close the program on Jan. 28, I would have had the dilemma of having everybody who had February rent due coming to a program that was going to be oversubscribed.

“So, I just want to say that January pushed me into a corner and I needed to give people as much notice as I was able. But, January was clicking by and so I apologize for the abruptness but it was the way that January unfolded that forced my hand on that.”

There were 11,470 applications in the final three days, including 5,215 on the final day. Ho said the tapering of activity as the 9 p.m. deadline neared was an example that the communication of the deadline was successful.

Committee members spoke of the need to continue helping renters.

“I have a worry about a cliff for evictions and a rise in evictions, people not being able to pay their rent,” said Rep. Liz Reyer (DFL-Eagan). “I worry on behalf of the tenants. I also worry on behalf of the landlords and the entire housing system. I hope that as a committee, we also have conversations about that going forward and that we do it soon.”

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