ST. PAUL — Minnesota's federally funded pandemic housing assistance program is fielding thousands of requests for millions of dollars, demonstrating the financial hardship that some faced even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of the households that applied to the program make less than 100% of the federal poverty level and have gone without shelter in the past. And before those figures were recorded, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Assistant Commissioner Ryan Baumtrog said, an estimated 150,000 households entered the pandemic making less than $50,000 and spending more than half of their income on rent.

"We knew that a lot of families were struggling going into the pandemic," Baumtrog said in an interview.

Though Minnesota is in a better economic position than it was during the early months of the pandemic, financial hardship still abounds in the state. The state unemployment rate drop substantially in October to 4.6% but state officials say that's mostly because a growing number of Minnesotans are not seeking work, perhaps for lack of luck finding it in the first place.

Ryan Baumtrog, commissioner, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Assistant
Ryan Baumtrog, commissioner, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Assistant

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The economic effects of the pandemic are perhaps felt most keenly by people of color in Minnesota. Joblessness still disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic Minnesotans even as the state unemployment rate continues to improve.

And according to state housing agency data, non-white households similarly make up approximately 56% of applications to the COVID-19 Housing Assistance Program, which the agency oversees

"Even though it’s maybe not in the news as much," Minnesota Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said in an interview, housing "is absolutely a crisis gripping everybody."

Hausman, chairwoman of the Minnesota House committee on Housing Finance and Policy, said the housing agency will likely spend all $100 million of federal pandemic stimulus funds that Gov. Tim Walz's administration set aside for the program by Dec. 30 and that another round of stimulus may yet come. Any money not spent after the December deadline, however, has to be returned to the federal government.

Between late August, when Minnesotans could first apply for the program, and mid-November, requests submitted asked for a rough total of $61.5 million. Baumtrog said in an interview that around $30 million has already been disbursed to the nonprofit organizations and local entities working to distribute the aid, which they send directly to the utilities, banks or landlords that applicants owe money.

What could befall the households relying on public assistance after the program sunsets next month is unclear. Program data collected so far suggest they were already in distress, with nearly a quarter have previously experienced homelessness.

Some 16,000 of the households that applied make less than 100% of the federal poverty level.

Congress has still not agreed on the terms of a proposed second stimulus package and appears unlikely to do so anytime soon. Federally enhanced unemployment insurance benefits renewed by President Donald Trump through a previous executive order have also expired.

Though the majority of program applications were for late rent or utility payments, homeowners continue to seek aid from it as well. A backlog of homeowners who applied grew to be substantial enough for the Minnesota Home Ownership Association and 16 other groups working with it to process program applications to stop accepting new ones as of Monday, Nov. 16.

"We’re being realistic about processing capacity and want to make sure we don’t run out of time to assist those who have already applied," association stakeholder relations representative Bill Gray said in an email.

The episode illustrates the similarly long-standing need to make homeownership more affordable, according to Sen. Torrey Westrom, chairman of the Minnesota Senate committee on housing finance. The Republican-led chamber sought to address the issue in an earlier bill for a pandemic housing assistance program that proponents said would have made low-cost home construction cheaper.

The Minnesota House ultimately did not take up, however, and the program was eventually established by the state executive branch instead.

"These dollars going to just rent assistances doesn't address the side of homeownership opportunity, which is where real wealth gets built in families starting out, whether they're in Minneapolis or Morris," Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said in an interview.

Baumtrog said approximately $25 million was still available through the housing program as of Friday, Nov. 20.