With the end unclear for a government-ordered shutdown to combat a pandemic that has idled hundreds of thousands of Minnesota workers, unease is building among renters and homeowners over how they’ll cover their housing expenses on April 1 and beyond.
“We could definitely become homeless,” said Crystal Linson, who until recently worked for a Twin Cities security company.
Linson and her fiancée are struggling with day-to-day essentials such as how to pay their utilities and buy cat food, let alone how they’ll make their $995 rent on April 1 while she seeks unemployment benefits. “And now my mental health is suffering,” she said.
Housing advocates and nonprofits in the Twin Cities say delays in approving and distributing state and federal assistance that’s aimed at shoring up the finances of renters and homeowners have left many in limbo. At the same time, Twin Citians are coming to grips with the reality that many of those measures are only a short-term fix in what’s likely to be a long-term economic downturn. “There will be thousands of Minnesotans who will not have the ability to make their rent payments this week,” said Anne Mavity, director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership. The situation is most dire, she said, for the 250,000 or so minimum wage workers in the state who are already living paycheck to paycheck and have been supplementing their income with wages that won’t be replaced by government benefits.
For many renters and homeowners in the Twin Cities, that April 1 deadline is the first of many financial hurdles in the months to come. Since March 16, about 240,000 new and reactivated unemployment applications have been filed in Minnesota. That doesn’t include independent workers ineligible for unemployment benefits who have also lost their livelihood.
At CommonBond Communities, one of the largest nonprofit rental developers and managers in the Twin Cities, the vast majority of the residents are hourly workers in the service sector, including hundreds of restaurant and hotel workers who are now unemployed and unsure when their services will again be needed.
“They’re getting no indication of whether they’ll ever be called back,” said Jessica Mills, who manages two buildings for CommonBond. In one building every resident has lost their job or had their hours cut; in the other more than half are now earning less than they did a month ago.
Though it’s been less than a week since the stay-at-home order took effect, Mills is already seeing signs of trouble. A day before April rents were due, the dropbox for rent checks at the West Broadway Crescent remained empty as the nonprofit scrambled to help workers apply for unemployment benefits.
Weeks ago, as the stimulus package worked its way through Congress, CommonBond implemented its own plan to help residents stay on track financially. Those efforts mirrored state and federal mandates, included halting evictions, waiving late fees for late rents and payment plans for those in the worst financial situation.
Mills said unease is rampant despite that plan and the promise of unemployment benefits.
“There’s a lot of fear of the future and fear of what’s going on,” she said.
A $2 trillion federal stimulus package that includes a $1,200 payment for adults, beefed-up unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures will provide a much-needed safety net for much of the population. However, delays in approvals and uncertainty about what happens after moratoriums expire has many renters and homeowners facing a serious cash crunch.
Kris Zierman is the manager of a small nonprofit that’s not considered an essential service. Although she’s able to work about half-time from home, she’s earning half of her normal wage and is already holding back payments on her utilities. She has enough to pay her April rent, but May 1 is anybody’s guess.
“I intend on paying rent tomorrow, and then I will watch to see how everything unfolds here over the next few weeks and what happens with my hours at work,” she said.
Eric Hauge, director of organizing and public policy at a Minneapolis-based nonprofit tenant advocacy organization called HOME Line, said that he’s received 350 calls during the past two weeks from renters worried about paying the rent. Because so many renters in the state won’t qualify for long-term benefits, he and other advocates including the Minnesota MultiHousing Association are asking for a minimum of $100 million in state rental assistance.
“$100 million doesn’t go very far when you consider how those numbers could increase with many people losing jobs,” he said.
For renters, he said, there’s very little clarity about what happens at the end of the governor’s order suspending evictions, so he helped craft a bill that would require a minimum of 60 days’ notice for an eviction filing following the end of the peacetime emergency.
For-profit rental property owners are also struggling to make sense of the situation. As they scramble to protect the health of their residents, they’re also wondering how they’ll pay their bills if tenants are unable to pay.
“These are tough conversations, when we hear about job losses and dramatic changes in people’s lives,” said Cecil Smith, an apartment owner and president of the Minnesota Multi-Housing Association. “We are in this together with our renters, and we are working with those renters to find options to get the rent paid.”
At Real Estate Equities, which manages about 4,000 apartments throughout the Twin Cities metro, rent increases are on hold and managers are asking residents to immediately notify them if it looks like they’ll have trouble paying. By the end of March, only about 13 residents have requested a payment plan, but Stefanie Sokup, vice president of marketing and leasing, said she expects that number to increase.
“We need those that can pay rent to pay it so we can operate,” Sokup said. “We have expenses like every other business.”
Julie Gugin is the executive director of the Minnesota Homeownership Center, which operates a hotline for homeowners who are struggling to pay their mortgage, reports little increase in its call volume in recent days. She expects that to change.
“People are still getting used to their new reality,” she said.
Gugin has been working with lenders throughout the state to come up with a plan to help the tens of thousands of homeowners who won’t be served by a federal mandate that requires companies serviced by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer temporary penalty- and interest-free forbearance to borrowers who can’t make their mortgage payments.
“If those opportunities don’t continue, people are really going to be in dire straits,” she said. “The question is, can we come up with a universal way to help people now and into the future?”