As hard as you try, you never forget the panic in your stomach when you see that notice slipped under the door of the place you call home. For us, that home was the Crossroads at Penn, a community of tenants who didn't just live in the Richfield apartment complex, but cared for each other as neighbors and friends for years.
When a new owner abruptly spiked the rent to push us out, we lost everything. Children had to change schools, parents had to find new work and we had to find a new community all over again.
Too many Minnesotans are now learning this feeling as the state fails to address the harm COVID-19 has brought to renters.
In response to the economic fallout of the pandemic, the federal government allocated funding for emergency rental assistance. Minnesota used this funding to launch RentHelpMN back in April. Over the past few months, the Housing Justice Center and other organizations statewide have operated as RentHelpMN field partners, assisting thousands of applicants.
For many people, one glitch-ridden application and its onerous testing requirements is all that stands between them and losing their homes.
The Treasury Department recently reported that only 11% of $46.5 billion in federal rent relief has been disbursed nationwide. And Minnesota — commonly regarded as a leader in public assistance — is not living up to our reputation.
As of Sept. 7, Minnesota ranked 30th nationally for its distribution of ERA1 funding, having approved or paid out roughly 13% of our initial allocation. Adding insult to injury, even when an application is approved, many tenants report significant delays between approval and when the funds reach their landlords — spanning weeks and sometimes months.
The reality is that Minnesota is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance — dollars that belong to struggling renters across the state. Applicants still await relief they applied for at the program's inception, evictions are on the rise, and many of the most vulnerable Minnesotans are unaware that RentHelpMN even exists.
Even before the pandemic, many Minnesotans could not afford their rent — 44% of Minnesota's renters were experiencing housing cost burden and 22% were experiencing severe housing cost burden, paying more than 50% of their income on housing.
Cost burden disproportionately impacts households of color in Minnesota who, not coincidentally, make up the majority of RentHelpMN applicants.
Unfortunately, RentHelpMN has proved less than helpful for tenants and landlords alike. Without a doubt, standing up a public benefits program of this magnitude on an accelerated timeline would have always involved challenges. But add in complicated means-testing, repeated technological failures, a lack of outreach, and we are met with a bureaucratic bottleneck choking the flow of emergency funds to at-risk Minnesotan renters at a time when they need these funds the most.
When it comes to emergency rent relief, speed is at the core of "getting it right."
Just ask the applicants who were promised future rent that is now past due, or the renters who waited tirelessly for help then were forced to move, no longer eligible for the assistance they applied for.
Listen to the U.S. Department of Treasury, which has emphasized the need for acceleration, threatening the potential reallocation of funding from lagging programs to more effective programs in other states as soon as Sept. 30.
Not only has money not reached existing applicants — outside of the Twin Cities metro, on average only 7.8% of households earning under $35,000 have applied. Eligible tenants have been, and will continue to be, evicted from their homes, formally and informally.
Ultimately, the failures of RentHelpMN contribute to future housing instability — evictions and arrears will follow renters as they search for apartments for years to come.
We know that people are trying. We know this work is hard. We know that technology does not always work the way we need it to. But good intentions are not enough, and no excuse justifies the loss of homes happening every day.
Minnesota must take every possible action to expeditiously disburse emergency rental assistance to vulnerable Minnesotans. For many, it is already too late.
Linda Soderstrom and Maria Johnson are former tenants of the Crossroads at Penn. Both sit on the Housing Justice Center board of directors.