ST. PAUL — A state program meant to help struggling households make rent, mortgage and utility payments during the coronavirus pandemic will stop accepting new applications on Monday, Dec. 7, and Minnesota officials are urging residents who might qualify for it to apply.
Officials highlighted the program's potential to prevent homelessness during a media call Thursday, Dec. 3, at a time when the pace of the U.S. economic recovery is slowing and COVID-19 caseloads soar. Homeowners and renters who earn 300% of the federal poverty level or less are eligible for program aid, which can be put toward past-due expenses dating back to March 1.
"The most important thing to me is that every Minnesotan who needs assistance knows that we still have money available," Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner Jennifer Ho said during the call.
One of the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program's aims is to keep landlords, lenders and utilities whole when their tenants, borrowers or customers have difficulty making ends meet. That's partly because homeowners and renters shielded by eviction and foreclosure moratoriums still have to pay their bills, meaning that a failure to do so could foreseeably result in the loss of housing once those protections expire.
Officials on Thursday's call would not say how much of the $100 million set aside for the program is left. As of Nov. 30, meanwhile, applicants had so far requested approximately $67 million in aid, which is sent directly to the person or entity to whom applicants owe money.
A majority of requests are for help with rent and some money set aside for the program is meant to pay for administrative costs incurred by the network nonprofit agencies helping to operate it. MHFA Assistant Commissioner Ryan Baumtrog previously told Forum News Service that approximately $25 million was still available through the program as of Nov. 20.
But the terms of the federal coronavirus stimulus package approved by Congress, funds from which were used to launch the housing aid program in July, dictate that any money not spent by Dec. 30 must be returned to the federal government. That could change with an additional act of Congress, although none has yet been agreed to.
Asked about the possibility of another congressional stimulus bill on Thursday, however, Gov. Tim Walz told reporters "I think we’re going to get a relief package."
All told, Minnesota has spent approximately $190 million of state and federal funds on a range of homelessness prevention programs since the pandemic began. Tens of millions flowed to homeless shelters to help with staffing and capacity, and millions more went toward food personal protective equipment purchases.
Minnesota's eviction moratorium also remains in place and will still be in effect for as long as Walz's peacetime emergency does. Other protections at the federal level offer some protection as well but may soon expire, with the national eviction moratorium ordered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set to lapse on Dec. 31.
A landlord could still file for an eviction in court while the CDC moratorium remains in effect, however, but their tenants cannot be made to leave until it is lifted. The Federal Housing Finance Agency this week extended a moratorium that exempts homeowners with federally backed mortgages from foreclosure until Jan. 31. Tenants of federally mortgaged properties also cannot be evicted under that ban.
"Extending Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's foreclosure and eviction moratoriums through January 2021 keeps borrowers safe during the pandemic," FHFA Director Mark Calabria said in a news release Tuesday, Dec. 1. "This extension gives peace of mind to the more than 28 million homeowners with an Enterprise-backed mortgage."
Health and housing experts have said that keeping Americans in their homes may help to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, because they might otherwise seek out shelters or shared living arrangements where the illness could potentially infect more people. To lose shelter heading into winter, when temperatures will drop and infection counts are expected to increase, may be particularly dangerous.
Minnesotans interested in applying to the housing program can do so online at mnhousing.gov. Eligibility can also be confirmed by calling the United Way, a partner in the program, at 651-291-0211 or 800-543-7709.
Contact Matthew Guerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-321-4314