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Becker County farmers, subsidized renters, dealing with the government shutdown

Because of the partial government shutdown, the Becker County Housing Authority had to scramble to make sure landlords got paid this month for renters in the subsidized Section 8 housing program.

The Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corp. is contracted to run the county housing program, which receives federal Housing and Urban Development funding for the 74 families in its Section 8 housing voucher program.

Unfortunately, HUD payments are estimates based on three-month-old data, and fell far short of the actual amount needed. That's because the county housing program just did a "big lease-up," and filled its section 8 voucher allotment, said MMCDC Housing Director Laura McKnight. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem, HUD workers are easy to reach and easy to work with, she said. But the partial government shutdown caused most HUD workers to be furloughed, and no one could be reached to update the data and fix the problem for Becker County. "It was kind of a perfect storm of events — it wouldn't have been a problem if there wasn't a shutdown," she said.

In a crunch, the county used $19,712 in Economic Development Authority reserves to make sure landlords received full January payment from their Section 8 subsidized tenants. "We needed to move immediately on it," said Becker County Economic Development Coordinator Guy Fischer. The county cut a check to the MMCDC, which sent out individual checks to landlords on Jan. 4.

Fischer said he acted with permission, and "with the understanding that payment will need to be ratified at the Jan. 17 (EDA) meeting."

The county EDA will get its money back sooner rather than later, since the MMCDC has since been able to contact an emergency HUD worker who will authorize the proper payment based on higher voucher numbers, McKnight said.

The Detroit Lakes Housing authority has had a smoother time of it.

"We're OK for January and February," said Kurt Keena, executive director at the Detroit Lakes Housing & Redevelopment Authority. "The Housing Assistance Payment money is in the system for January and February ... We got January's money and February money is in the system. On the first of each month, HUD puts into our account the anticipated amount of rent subsidy needed. It varies a little, but before the shutdown happened, there were funds in the system for January and February ... If it (the federal government shutdown) goes beyond February, it's a different story."

Even if the shutdown stretches into March, the city would likely use agency reserves or otherwise find a way to make sure landlords get paid, he said.

"It's not anticipated to have landlords evict people because they can't get their payments," Keena said. "That would be incredibly disruptive to those families and to the landlords. We probably have enough reserves for a couple months at least ... this won't last forever, eventually they'll come to their senses (in Washington)."

Some farmers are also feeling the shutdown pinch, said Jim Velde, a retired Farm Service Agency officer in Detroit Lakes, who now works with farmers one-on-one as a farm business management instructor at Central Lakes College in Staples.

"It's kind of a problem right now," he said. "A lot of farmers, when they sell grain or livestock, if there's a lien on it, can't get it co-signed by the FSA on the check so they can cash the check."

That can cause real cash-flow problems for farmers who need to use that money for farm operations, but can't, because FSA workers are furloughed by the shutdown.

"The sooner it (the shutdown) can get done, the better for everyone, especially farmers," Velde said. "When they're shut down, that part of their business is put on hold."

There are also farmers that want to get a jump on the coming year, he said.

"Even now, we have a few farmers waiting to submit applications and forms to the FSA, which is closed," he said. "I know it's January, but they like to get it in early."

Velde's job is to help farmers work out their options for the coming year and develop a plan that makes the most sense for them. The shutdown isn't making it any easier.

"It's kind of a pain," he said. "I don't know how to plan for what these guys are going to do." At this point, he added, it's a matter of getting the paperwork ready. "When the FSA re-opens, they are going to get hit with a lot right away," Velde said.

On the bright side, if there has to be a shutdown, winter is probably the least painful season for farmers.

"There's really no good time for a shutdown, but winter is better than spring, summer or fall," he said.