Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) and other local organizations are calling for a cancellation of rents and mortgages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of CTUL.

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When Minnesota Governor Tim Walz shut down non-essential businesses in the state to help stem the spread of COVID-19, he impacted many immigrants who run micro businesses like hair salons, stalls at community malls, and small clothing stores. The owners of these very small businesses — often sole proprietorships — are struggling to make rent and discuss realistic solutions with their landlords. 

Organizations and individuals are rallying to demand an immediate freeze on rent, and additional support for these business owners. The rent-relief movement is growing in Minnesota with more people adding their names to a letter of solidarity every day.

One local stall owner, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said in the letter: “We anticipate even if the shelter in place order is lifted that our regular and irregular customers will not return to their regular shopping for a long time.” And, without customers, business owners don’t have income. 

“Rental tenants, they have no money,” said Denise Butler, program manager for African Career, Education, and Resource, Inc. (ACER), a nonprofit that works with African immigrants in the north and northwest suburbs of Minneapolis. “They have no money, they have no source of income. They’re basically waiting for these different rental assistance programs.”

Butler has been working with micro-business owners who haven’t benefited from the federal, state, and local resources currently being offered to help with income loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, these owners don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or business loan programs, or they are waiting to hear back on applications they have filed. “If folks don’t have income, how are we really expecting them to pay for rent?” Butler asked.

The movement to suspend rent and mortgage payments has taken on national proportions. In mid-April, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and others proposed federal legislation that would cancel rent and mortgage payments on primary residences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rent and Mortgage Cancelation Act would suspend all payments, prohibit fines for non-payment, ensure that non-payments have no effect on credit scores, and eliminate repayment expectations after the pandemic. The legislation also would provide a relief fund to reimburse landlords and mortgage lenders. 

“The coronavirus crisis is more than just a public health crisis—it’s an economic crisis,” Ilhan said in a press release. “Minnesotans are losing jobs, getting their hours reduced, and struggling just to put food on the table. We must take major action to protect the health and economic security of the most vulnerable, including the millions of Americans currently at risk of housing instability and homelessness.”

Since the pandemic crisis began, different governmental entities have rolled out various programs to assist those who’ve lost income. But, perhaps due to the patchwork nature of the efforts, there are gaps.

“We need multiple solutions that work so we can cover everybody,” said Nelima Sitati Munene, ACER’s executive director. “The people that we keep excluding are people already facing inequities.”

The Minneapolis gap funding program that launched on Wednesday has drawn more than 3,000 applicants asking for rental assistance, twice the number the city anticipated. But rental assistance is just one way to help people who may have been living on the edge before the pandemic began, said Nelima, adding. “People were just one life incident away from losing their home.”

Tenants were already making choices about what they could and couldn’t afford, she said. Now that the May rent deadline is approaching, many are asking themselves, “Should I buy my food or should I pay my rent?”

Without the suspension of rent and mortgage payments, some people who’ve lost their livelihoods are looking for other work in order to avoid going into arrears. Nelima described one woman who was putting herself at risk by caring for someone else’s elderly parent, making only about $25 a day.

“The big issue here is about people being able to keep themselves safe and also not put others at risk,” she said. 

On May 1— the day when rent will be due for many, which also is International Workers’ Day — local community organizations will gather to protest and demand that Gov. Walz and U.S. Bank take action on rent and mortgage relief in Minnesota.

Organizations participating in the event include United Renters for Justice, ACER, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), Black Visions Collective, TC DSA Housing Justice Branch, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota.

Those wishing to join the event are encouraged to decorate their cars and bring signs for a caravan that will begin outside of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis at 12 pm and end at Gov. Walz’s mansion in St. Paul.  “I’m seeing that May 1st is going to be a really exciting day,” said CTUL spokesperson Isabela Escalona.

Natalie Cierzan is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and staff reporter for the Minnesota Daily.