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'We're Really Worried': Rent Assistance Orgs Face Influx Of Calls As State Program Abruptly Stops Applications

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Less than a year after it began taking applications, the Rent Help MN program will stop taking them, setting a deadline for 9 p.m. Friday night.

The federally funded program gave out more than $300 million in assistance, says Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho. The money, she says, simply ran out.

"When the federal government created these funds, they weren't ongoing," Ho said. "We always knew they were going to come to an end. It wasn't a question of whether or not to stop, it was a question of when to stop. We always knew it was going to be a hard day."

The end of the program comes at a time where demand for the funds was higher than it'd ever been – with the agency expected to take in more than 11,000 applications for the month of January alone.

"Families are hurting," Ho said. "People have lost seasonal work. Who would have thought we'd still be in a pandemic? People lost their federal child tax credit that wasn't continued by congress. We've got the price of fuel in a cold winter."

While Ho says the program's end was inevitable, Twin Cities nonprofits assisting people with rent say it came at them with no warning.

"We were very, very surprised," said Margaret Kaplan, president of the Housing Justice Center in St. Paul. "The message that had been coming out from the state fairly consistently has been 'We're not going to run out of money, apply for benefits'...It strikes me as really a moral failing that people are going to be losing their homes in the middle of winter for not having enough money to pay their rent."

Kaplan says the Housing Justice Center has spent the last several days dealing with an influx of calls from concerned renters. What worries her more, she says, is people who might not know the change is coming.

"Three days is not enough time to notify everybody who needs to know this is something that is pending," she said. "One of our concerns are there are still people out there across the state who still don't know the program is ending."

Ho says she's hopeful the state can work out another plan to help renters, pointing to a $1 billion proposal for the state's Housing and Homeless budget. Kaplan says that doesn't protect renters who could be evicted by their landlords in the meantime.

"This is not 50 or 100 (people), we're talking tens of thousands of people who are going to be at risk," Kaplan said. "This isn't a metro issue, it's not a Greater Minnesota issue, it's an everybody issue. No matter what county you're in in our state, there are people who are experiencing housing instability today, and there are people who are going to be losing their homes next week."

Kaplan says anyone who is concerned they've fallen behind should connect to social services in their community by calling 211, connecting with the United Way, or connecting with local programs in Hennepin or Ramsey county.

"We need to have a broad view as to how we fix this," Ho said. "There's no one simple fix."

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