In response to mounting pressure from advocates throughout Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan announced the “COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program” on July 14. The program allocates $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds for residents struggling with housing-related expenses incurred because of the coronavirus pandemic. Payments on behalf of applicants are expected to begin in mid-August.
This new program comes on the heels of heated advocacy for racial justice throughout the state, and in her announcement of the program, Lieutenant Governor Flanagan was quick to acknowledge the racial disparities of housing access and affordability, noting that “housing justice is racial justice.” Minnesota Housing Partnership and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, both NLIHC state partners, have led with key partners in the effort to get lawmakers to prioritize housing needs throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Minnesota had a fragile housing market before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the need for statewide housing assistance. Lieutenant Governor Flanagan noted in the announcement of the program that over 140,000 Minnesota households making less than $50,000 a year are severely cost burdened households, meaning that they pay over half of their income to housing payments. Furthermore, she noted that only ¼ of eligible families nationwide receive federal housing assistance. This program intends to shrink the evident gap between Minnesotans’ need for housing assistance and available aid.
State officials will award funds to local grant administrators, who will manage the housing assistance program in their localities. Renters and homeowners with an income at or below 300% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) will be eligible for the program, though preference will be given to those with an income at or below 200% FPL. Eligible applicants must also be residents of Minnesota, have incurred an eligible past-due expense after March 1, and be unable to make the payment due to effects of coronavirus. Eligible expenses include rent and mortgage payments, contract for deed payments, payments or rent at a manufactured home park, utility payments, association fees, homeowner insurance, and additional housing-related costs approved by the state. Assistance payments will be made directly to landlords, mortgage servicers, utility companies, or any other entity to which an eligible payment is owed.
The recent $100 million in rent assistance is not the only success of housing advocates since the beginning of the pandemic. In mid-March, advocates at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless coordinated with partners throughout the state to pen a letter to state leadership urging them to fund homelessness prevention programs in response to the mounting pandemic. Minnesota Housing Partnership mobilized their members throughout the spring and summer to contact lawmakers with action alerts. The efforts of these two groups clearly paid off: in addition to the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, the state allocated $26 million early in the pandemic to support shelter and outreach providers, ultimately creating 2,100 additional safe spaces for shelter.