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The most common questions about Minnesota’s rental assistance program, answered

The state House Finance Agency, tenant rights activists and Mid Minnesota Legal Aid address the most-frequently asked questions they get from both and renters and landlords about the state’s rental assistance program. 

Apartments on Grand Avenue in St. Paul
Apartments on Grand Avenue in St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Minnesota is in the midst of distributing $672 in federal COVID relief funds to help renters who couldn’t make rent payments because of the pandemic. While the rollout of the program started slowly, RentHelpMN has now sent out payments totalling $256 million (out of $372 million requested) from 59,000 applicants.

Yet there are still many eligible renters who have not yet applied — and many questions from tenants and landlords about the program. To help clear up some of the confusion, we asked the state housing agency, tenant rights activists and Mid Minnesota Legal Aid to address the most-frequently asked questions they hear from both owners and renters.  (The state’s largest landlord group was also asked to participate but did not reply before this article was posted.)

Q: Is rental assistance still available?

A: Yes, unlike a state-only program in the second half of 2020, which had an end-of-year deadline, rental assistance funded by the COVID Relief Act of December 2020 and the American Rescue Plan  (ARP) can be spent through 2022. The state expects available funds to be allocated by the middle of the second quarter of 2022.

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Q: Is the program running out of money?

A: No. Funding that went directly to the state of Minnesota alone totals $300 million from the first federal act — the money being spent now. Large counties and cities received additional funds and have separate programs, such as the Zero Balance Project (in Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties plus the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul) or a standalone program in Ramsey County. The state will next spend from an ARP distribution of $290 million, with another $85 million going to the large counties and cities

Q: I read that the state might have to return some of the money because it didn’t spend it fast enough. Is that true?

A: No. Though the U.S. Treasury made that threat in September to all states as a way to jumpstart assistance programs nationwide, Minnesota has satisfied Treasury’s requirements for getting money to landlords and will not forfeit funds.

Q: Who is eligible for assistance?

A: Under the federal law funding the programs, assistance is for renters who were impacted economically by the pandemic, who meet certain income requirements and who are behind on rent and/or utilities. When in doubt, tenants should apply anyway if they are behind on rent.

Q: How much help is available?

A: Qualified applicants can benefit for up to 18 months of rent payments: 12 months in back rent and three months of future rent. The help goes back to unpaid rent after March 13, 2020. The state, however, recently moved to use $20 million in other ARP funds to add three months of assistance for an estimated 7,000 households expected to exhaust the 18 months allowed under the federal laws. There is not cap on the amount of back rent that can be paid, only the months of rent. 

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Q: How do tenants or landlords who think they are covered by the program apply?

A: Applications can be started online at RentHelpMN. Calling United Way at 211 is also a good way to get questions answered though wait times have been lengthy.

Q: Is there a deadline to apply?

A: No. 

Q: Is there still an eviction ban in Minnesota?

A: The eviction ban imposed by Gov. Tim Walz was phased out by an act of the state Legislature earlier this year. However, any tenant who submitted an application to RentHelpMN or one of the local government programs funded with federal COVID relief money is protected from eviction for non-payment of rent until June of 2022 as long as they are in the midst of the process. Pending applications include those that have been submitted and have not been denied, withdrawn or paid. If an applicant has been denied or benefited from the program and does not pay rent in the future, they could be evicted.

Q: What about renters who violate non-economic aspects of a lease, such as damage to property, breaking smoking rules or operating illegal activities? Can they be evicted even if they are applicants for rental assistance?

A: Yes. Still, advocates advise that they seek legal advice or ask for representation in housing court.

Q: Can a landlord refuse to renew a lease?

A: Yes. This is not a court matter. Non-renewals are permitted even if a tenant has an application pending for rental assistance. For those with questions about such a situation, advocates suggest asking for legal advice from organizations such as HOME Line

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Q: What should a tenant do if they receive an eviction summons and complaint court documents while they are in the midst of an application for help?

A: Even though they are protected from eviction, the tenant should make sure to ATTEND THE HEARING before the Housing Court. Tenant advocates and legal aid attorneys say this is the biggest misunderstanding of the way the law is being interpreted by housing courts. If the tenant fails to attend what are usually virtual hearings, courts have been issuing default judgements against them. That means they can be removed from residences by the sheriff. Even if tenants attend and show they are applying for help, some judges are staying orders or continuing hearings when the expectation is that the eviction action be dismissed. RentHelpMN staff are available at eviction hearings to provide copies of proof that applications are in process.

Q: How does a tenant know if they’ve gotten an official eviction notice and not just another demand for payment?

A: The paperwork for an official action must be served either in person or by both mailing the documents and posting them at the rental unit seven days before the hearing. They will contain a court case number and a court date and time and information on how to attend a remote or in-person hearing.

Q: What if an application has been denied? Can a tenant be evicted?

A: Yes. But tenants who have been denied because they aren’t eligible or because their applications were not completed can appeal. As long as the tenant’s appeals are pending, the eviction ban protects them. Help on appeals is available from the Housing Justice Center a 1-800-403-0476.

Q: What if a tenant receives an eviction summons but has not yet started an application. Is it too late?

A: No, but government managers of the programs urge quick action. RentHelpMN has staff members attending or available at all housing courts who can give advice on how to start an application at the hearing.

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Q: What about tenants who were behind on rent but moved out? Can they get help for that back rent?

A: Yes. Due to a change in rules from the federal government in the summer, tenants and landlords can now apply for help under the “vacated unit” section of the website. But this requires starting a new application.

Q: Are unpaid utility bills covered?

A: Yes. Applicants will be asked for paperwork on such debts in the application process.

Q: What if a tenant only needs help paying utility bills?

A: The Energy Assistance Program at the state Department of Commerce offers utility help for overdue costs as well as prospective costs. Pending applications with either the EAP or RentHelpMN provide utility shut-off protections to households that have applied for help. RentHelpMN, however, does not pay forward expenses for utilities.

Q: Can renters with past due utilities assessments have those utilities disconnected?

A: Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule protects all consumers from cutoffs between October 1 and April 30 as long as the consumer makes a payment plan with the utility. 

Q: How does a tenant or landlord get information or help?

A: The state is working with United Way 211 to field calls and answer questions. Those with pending applications can log into the state system and find updates on applications or submit questions or requests.

Q: Can a landlord make an application for assistance for a tenant owing back rent?

A: A landlord can begin an application but the tenant must be involved and approve an application.

Q: What if the tenant never responds or is uncooperative?

A: The state contacts a tenant regarding an application started by a landlord three times over the course of two weeks. If there is no response, the application is denied and eviction protections no longer apply to that tenant.

Q: What if a landlord never responds or is uncooperative?

A: While most payments are sent to landlords directly, the program will make payments to tenants instead if a landlord refuses to accept payment or is unresponsive.

Q: What about homeowners who are behind on mortgages due to the pandemic and are either in foreclosure or are facing foreclosure. Are they eligible for help under RentHelpMN?

A: No. However, the state is setting up another program called HomeHelpMN with American Rescue Plan dollars. It hopes to roll out the program in the first half of 2022. Homeowners concerned about foreclosure are encouraged to talk with whoever services their mortgage about making plans to repay. They can also receive free advice from the Minnesota Homeownership Center

Q: Are payments to landlords taxable?

A: Payments to landlords are taxable and tax forms will be sent by the state to landlords who received payments from the program. Those payments are not taxable for tenants who benefit.

Q: Landlords have reported frustration with using the program. Where can they go for help and to ask questions?

A: The state has set up a webpage with an email to address specific questions from landlords.