ST. PAUL — Wednesday marks the first of the month. And in Minnesota, thousands could face a pinch to make their rent payments after being laid off, furloughed or closing up businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Tim Walz last week issued an executive order barring landlords or banks from starting eviction proceedings during the state's peacetime emergency. Tenants are still expected to pay their April rent on time unless they come to agreements with their landlords.
Lawmakers in a one-day session Thursday, March 26, failed to reach an agreement on whether the state should provide emergency aid meant to be put toward rent for those who can't afford it. In the days since, several advocacy groups mounted a push to get state lawmakers to help foot the bill for those out of work as efforts to limit the disease's spread take hold. And individual legislators said that should be a top priority when lawmakers return April 14 or sooner.
In an eviction moratorium bill introduced before Walz announced the order, Rep. Michael Howard, D-Richfield, called for the establishment of a $100 million rental assistance fund. That provision wasn't included in Walz's order, nor did it make it into the $330 million pandemic relief bill passed by the Legislature last week.
In a statement issued after the bill passed, Howard said its omission of a housing assistance program puts "both renters and landlords in significant financial jeopardy."
"Rent is due April 1, and it will be due again on May 1. If we want our renters to make their rent, and landlords to make their mortgage, we must work urgently to reach consensus on legislation so that all Minnesotans can afford to stay home and stay safe," he said.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Tuesday said negotiations about a housing assistance program were ongoing. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, last week said it was an area that lawmakers hoped to reach agreement on ahead of the next "phase" of response legislation.
Supporters said the program is a necessary supplement to the social assistance programs for which many out-of-work Minnesotans have already applied.
The Minnesota Multi Housing Association, which advocates for property owners and managers, has been advising its members to point struggling tenants toward unemployment insurance and other programs. But even somebody who qualifies for multiple benefit programs may still struggle to pay for their basic necessities in addition to housing costs, said association president and CEO Cecil Smith.
"There’s going to be circumstances where folks are falling through those safety nets," Smith said.
Minnesota Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove on Tuesday said eight companies had laid off 50 or more employees since mid-February, twice as many as over the same timeframe last year. And in total, 4,011 employees were laid off at least temporarily as compared to 1,857 people laid off during that window in 2019.
Since mid-March, a total of 255,371 Minnesotans had applied for unemployment insurance, Grove said, following executive orders closing restaurants, bars and areas of public amusement in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Many state homeless advocates and emergency shelters have called for rental assistance as well. Facing a surge of shelter seekers looking to avoid infection, they could potentially be overwhelmed by a mass displacement event.
"We know that shelters are severely stretched right now," said Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless executive director Rhonda Otteson during a recent press call.
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