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Minnesota has received millions of dollars for emergency housing assistance in the past year.

In summer 2020, $100 million from the federal coronavirus relief funds was used by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to establish the COVID-19 Housing Assistance program. In December 2020, Minnesota was allocated $375 million in federal housing assistance from the COVID-19 relief bill and in March of this year an additional $426 million in federal money came to the state from the American Rescue Plan for emergency rental and homeowner’s assistance.

This money has helped tens of thousands of low- and moderate-income Minnesotans maintain their housing and avoid homelessness during the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Each time the federal money has been transformed into an emergency housing assistance program and offered to Minnesotans, the response from people needing assistance to stay in their homes has been overwhelming. More than 44,000 applications were received for the first assistance program, the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, from Aug. 24 to Dec. 7, 2020. Thousands more have applied for help paying rent and utilities from the subsequent emergency housing programs established with the two federal distributions to the state this year.

The large response to assistance programs came as no surprise to Minnesota Housing Agency Commissioner Jennifer Ho. “About 200,000 renter households in the state do not have confidence in their ability to make their housing payments,” she said recently.

Preventing a tsunami of mortgage foreclosures and renter evictions has been an ongoing battle for federal and state officials since predictions about the negative economic effect of the pandemic became front-page news. The substantial financial response was a major strategy, but leaders also used moratoriums and forbearance to supplement the support for homeowners and renters. On the federal level, mortgage payment forbearance was offered to homeowners with federally guaranteed mortgages, which account for more than two-thirds of residential mortgage loans in the U.S. In Minnesota, the offer of emergency assistance money to renters was fortified by a moratorium on evictions.

Gov. Tim Walz acted quickly in the pandemic crisis and suspended evictions and lease terminations in mid-March 2020 as an emergency measure to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to “protect the health and safety” of Minnesotans. The suspension was continued as part of the governor’s Emergency Executive Order, which became effective on Aug. 4, 2020.

From all viewpoints, it appears the measures taken so far have greatly reduced an anticipated wave of mortgage foreclosures and renter evictions.

However, homeowners and especially renters remain at risk as housing assistance supports are removed, because rent payments were not reduced or waived during the moratorium. Once the suspension has ended, owners can file for evictions, removals can be enforced, and renters who failed to pay rent on time can have their credit impacted, which can cause problems with future housing options.

This was a concern addressed by Minnesota legislators in the recent special session, with an agreement reached that will provide an “off ramp” to keep Minnesotans in their homes as supports are gradually scaled back before the moratorium is ended in about 105 days.

The legislative agreement is expected to be passed by both houses and signed by Gov. Walz.

All along the months of dealing with the real risk of thousands of Minnesotans losing their homes and facing homeless due to the pandemic, state leaders have acted swiftly, intentionally, and with a lot of heart. This latest bipartisan agreement is added evidence that state leaders understand the vital part that housing plays in every life.

This is an editorial from the Adams Publishing-East Central Minnesota Editorial Board. Reactions are welcome. Send to: editorial.board@apgecm.com.

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