EDITORIAL: Housing: Rent help plan needs urgent boost

Nov. 21—While the pandemic has disrupted daily life for almost two years, its latest victim may be the disruption of stable housing for those who've not been able to pay rent due to pandemic related job loss.

An in-depth report in last Sunday's Free Press showed just how fragile housing is for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic and who still struggle to pay current rent and owe thousands in back rent. It showed 1,800 people in the nine county Mankato region have requested $9.4 million in rent aid.

The state of Minnesota and Gov. Tim Walz, seeing the enormity of the oncoming problems last year, set up a system to identify and assist renters and landlords to help them stabilize housing and get landlords the rent they're owed. But with thousands needing assistance and hundreds of millions of dollars to be distributed, the system has been slow and bogged down at times.

The RentHelpMN system has allocated only about two-thirds of the total of $300 million it received from the federal government in April. Housing advocates at the Housing Justice Center had in September criticized RentHelpMN for a complicated and cumbersome application system fraught with technological glitches. And with the eviction moratorium lifted Oct. 12, many renters remain at risk of losing their housing.

The Free Press in-depth report showed how that was playing out locally. One MSU international student from India lost financial support from her parents as the pandemic raged there last year. As an international student, she can only work 20 hours a week, which she was doing. She appeared in eviction court worried she would be thrown out of her apartment even though she had applied for RentHelpMN. It was the small detail of not having documentation that nearly cost her.

Fortunately for her, a RentHelpMN worker got her the documentation she needed the night before court.

But other students were just as confused in other court hearings The Free Press observed. Several ended up having to "settle" with landlord lawyers on past due rent and had to be out of their dwellings in seven days.

It's clear housing advocates and RentHelpMN are doing all they can to help renters and get those dollars out the door, but the lifting of the eviction moratorium in October put pressure on a system that lacked the capacity to catch up to rising eviction cases.

RentHelpMN is making more progress and getting money into the hands of landlords and tenants. From its launch in April through September, the organization doled out $91 million in rental assistance. It allocated $100 million in the month of October alone.

And Minnesota Housing Finance Agency has deployed staffers to courthouses in each of Minnesota's 10 judicial districts to help notify those in eviction court they have an option to delay their eviction by simply applying for RentHelpMN.

RentHelpMN is not perfect. It appears to be getting better. If it's a matter of staffing, we should increase staffing. If the computer programs don't work, we should fix them or get others.

And the courts should understand there needs to be some flexibility getting renters signed up and legally certified for RentHelpMN.

Landlord attorneys did not appear fond of this kind of help "interfering" with a court proceeding, but the outcomes will ultimately be better for everyone if renters are assisted. Landlords will be paid. And more important, renters will have stable housing.

Homelessness, as we have seen in a year-long in-depth report in The Free Press, can have debilitating effects on people and the community. Housing security affects one's ability to get a job, earn income and maintain physical and mental health.

We urge legislators and Walz to do whatever is necessary to get RentHelpMN serving the most Minnesotans in the quickest way possible.

For more information and to sign up for RentHelpMN go to https://www.renthelpmn.org/