Housing is Ericka Mackey’s largest expense, bigger than feeding her two teenage children.
When Nordstrom cut the single mother’s position during the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment benefits and the extra $600 weekly federal payment “took the edge off” her worries about covering rent at West Broadway Crescent apartments in Minneapolis.
But the additional federal assistance ends next week. And though Mackey got her job back, her hours remain uncertain, like those of many other workers struggling through the pandemic economy.
On Tuesday, she stood alongside Gov. Tim Walz to roll out a $100 million housing assistance program intended to reduce homelessness by helping people straining to keep up with rents and mortgages.
The money will come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Minnesotans should be able to qualify for the aid by the middle of August to cover rents due by Sept. 1, Walz said. He stressed that housing stability is more critical than ever during the pandemic.
“It makes it very, very difficult for children to learn if they don’t have a home, especially if they are trying to distance learn,” the governor said. “It makes it very difficult for people to practice social distancing and use that haven of a home.”
Walz halted evictions statewide in late March for people who are unable to pay rent. His administration has urged people to keep paying rent if possible.
He also issued an executive order Tuesday continuing the moratorium but allowing landlords to evict certain tenants, such as those who endanger the safety of others, engage in illegal activities or significantly damage property.
People will be able to qualify for the new housing money if they have been affected by COVID-19 and make less than 300% of the federal poverty level, or $78,600 for a family of four, according to Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho.
The state is now picking local agencies to distribute the money.
It remains unclear how many families will seek money through the new state aid program, Ho said. But state and local officials said the need is growing as thousands of Minnesotans like Mackey have lost their jobs or had their hours cut during the outbreak.
The cost of housing was a challenge for many even before coronavirus hit, said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
She said more than 140,000 households in Minnesota make less than $50,000 a year and spend at least half of their income on rent.
The $100 million, which covers both renters and homeowners, has been available in state coffers for months. But the money got caught up in legislative negotiations over a broader housing package.
Walz said he would rather go through the Legislature for housing assistance but decided to issue an executive order to release the funds now.
“I think there are really smart people who are in touch with their communities that should be doing this in the Legislature,” he said. “It’s just very hard to get a decision that way. Some of these things need to move.”
State lawmakers are currently in the summer’s second special session, which includes talks about issuing $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds.
But that money, coming from long-term borrowing, would not provide emergency aid.
Instead it would be used to repair and build housing to address the statewide shortage.