Janne Flisrand, community relations manager at HousingLink, an affordable housing program, poses for a portrait in her backyard garden in Minneapolis on September 22. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In the first couple of months of the COVID-19 eviction moratorium, Panouchi Lo managed the housing navigators at the Hmong American Partnership, helping renters and landlords apply for emergency rent assistance. Lo said she heard some Hmong renters are hesitant to apply because they work under the table and don’t file taxes on some of their income. 

African American renters describe different challenges, says Richard McLemore, executive director at McLemore Holdings, which offers workshops and training for renters. They may express concerns about technology and when to trust housing staff and navigators with personal information. 

Aisha Conteh, 38, is a single mother with three children who applied in December for emergency rent assistance. She grew up in Sierra Leone and immigrated 12 years ago to the United States; she currently lives in an apartment in Brooklyn Center. During the pandemic, she and her children contracted COVID-19. As the pandemic persisted, she said, she found it increasingly hard to make ends meet. 

“So from there, whatever little money I was saving to make a better life for me and my kids to survive. We lose everything,” Conteh said. “So there was a time, I cannot even afford to pay my house rent.” 

In response to the pandemic, the United States imposed an eviction moratorium, which protected tenants who fell behind on rent. That policy ended on July 31, but Minnesota’s eviction moratorium will continue through June 2022.  

Many Minnesota tenants need help, having fallen behind on rent. Two thirds of applicants identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Almost 40 percent of applicants said they experienced recent unemployment, according to the RentHelpMN data dashboard

PolicyLink and the USC Equity Research Institute publish a rent debt dashboard that tracks the issue. Its latest data show some 50,000 Minnesota households are behind on rent; the average debt for these households is $2,300. 

Through August, emergency rent assistance programs in the United States have distributed more than 1.4 million payments to households, totaling more than $7.7 billion dollars allocated to vulnerable renters. 

The emergency rental assistance is provided largely by funding from the government. Based on which program the applicant qualifies for, renters can receive assistance to cover up to 15 months or 18 months of housing-related debts. Awards can fund overdue rent and up to three months of future rent, as requested in applications. 

To help as many Minnesota renters and landlords as possible before then, housing programs and community organizations are working together with RentHelpMN in a widespread effort to provide support and advocacy. 

As of September 30, RentHelpMN has paid more than $90.9 million dollars to renters in need of emergency rent assistance. 

One Ramsey County partnership began last August between the Hmong American Partnership, McLemore Holdings, Latino Economic Development Center, and Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio.* These groups are now meeting weekly to assist renters in the application process. 

“The best part is [that] we help each other doesn’t matter what organization you’re in,” says Lo, from the Hmong American Partnership. “If we need assistance with our clients, or just any questions that come along, or any challenges, we are all in this together, and we all help each other.” 

To receive support, renters (or landlords) need to apply 

The Minnesota eviction moratorium protects renters against evictions and will provide emergency rent assistance until June 2022. 

But for renters to get protection and emergency rent assistance, renters must complete an application and gather documents for verification. Otherwise, if the renter falls behind and fails to apply, landlords can file for eviction.

How to apply for rent assistance? RentHelpMN provides online and in-person services to connect renters with information. RentHelpMN will also direct renters toward community organizations that are dedicated to serving communities of color and immigrant communities. 

The application for emergency rent assistance is a complicated process. 

Renters in need of emergency rent assistance and landlords need to communicate with each other to assemble the documents for the application. Depending on the financial circumstances of the renter, different documents may be required for verification. 

Landlords can also take the initiative to start the emergency rent assistance process for their renters. The Zero Balance Project serves Dakota, Hennepin, and Ramsey counties, with the goal of guiding property owners and managers who want to lead the application process to secure emergency rent assistance on behalf of renters.*

“Landlords can submit multiple applications for any of their renters who are behind on rents due to COVID pandemic challenges,” said Janne Flisrand, community relations manager at HousingLink, an affordable housing program. She added that in The Zero Balance Project, property owners submit most of the application paperwork, saving renters time.. 

The COVID eviction moratorium in Minnesota ends in June 2022. Here’s how to apply for support to catch up on missing rent

Are you a renter who has fallen behind during the COVID pandemic? Or are you a landlord with tenants who need help catching up on rent? Minnesota has money available to help. RentHelpMN, a network of community groups and agencies, offers information and assistance to make the application easier.

Usually, the application can be completed online, over the phone, or in person with a housing navigator. Language assistance and translation is available. 

Wondering how to prepare yourself to get it done? Here are the documents you’ll need to provide in order to qualify: 

For landlords:

  • a completed W-9 tax form
  • a rent bill or rent ledger that shows unpaid rent, utilities, or fees
  • the lease agreement with the name of the renter who is applying for emergency rent assistance
  • a tax document with the landlord’s property and the renter’s contact information. 

Renters seeking support need to provide the documents above, plus:

  • verified income (through pay stubs, tax documents, or self-certification. (Note, self-certification can allow workers who may work off the books to apply for aid without submitting tax forms.) 
  • An explanation for their COVID-19–related hardship. 

What you DON’T need to show:

  • Paperwork showing U.S. citizenship or a green card. Undocumented immigrants can apply, too. Forms will NOT be shared with immigration authorities.

“We are here because it’s critical that everybody both has access to those resources, and that we’re not adding burdens to people in the future that make it hard for them to just live their daily lives and succeed and thrive,” said Flisrand. 

It takes around a month to complete the application and start receiving the funds to help pay for rent. Usually, the application can be completed online, over the phone, or in person with a housing navigator. 

Understanding the eviction moratorium

As the eviction moratorium transitions to the next phase, more landlords will be allowed to file for eviction against renters if they do not meet the requirements for protection. 

On September 22, the eviction moratorium transitioned into phase four. That means landlords are now able to file for evictions against renters who are behind on rent and ineligible to apply for emergency rent assistance. 

Phase five starts on October 12, which allows landlords to end leases or file for eviction for any legal reason under existing lease agreements, unless the renter has an emergency rent assistance application pending. 

According to RentHelpMN, there are no caps or limits to the total amount of emergency rent assistance provided to a household. However, Minnesota Housing is in charge of assessing the reasonableness of the requested amounts and possible follow-up. 

“We want to make sure that when the federal government allocates assistance, because people are struggling through no fault of their own, that they get that assistance,“ Flisrand said. “So we really want people to apply.” 

Providing services to help immigrant renters

Every community organization involved in the widespread effort offers different resources to address specific needs of immigrant communities.

At the same time Conteh, a nursing assistant, got sick with COVID-19, she was diagnosed with diabetes. With a weekly paycheck of less than $800 dollars, Conteh said her rent, school fees, and bills started to pile up. She’s behind by more than $6,000 on rent. 

Conteh said her dream is to become a nurse. She talks about being the best mother she can, in order to support her children. Through her community connections, she said she found support and resources from the African Career, Education and Resource Inc., a non-profit organization. 

She applied for emergency rent assistance and her application was approved. At the moment, Conteh said, she is confirming bills with her landlord. 

“I was struggling before, but not too hard. But when the COVID came, everything went down the drain,” Conteh said. “It’s hard for me to catch up with my bills, catch up with the house rent. It is really frustrating.” 

Nonprofits offer strategies to complete the application

At the Hmong American Partnership, three housing navigators have already helped 25 people to apply for emergency rent assistance. Two of these staff speak Hmong fluently and one speaks Karen. 

Renters who work under the table, Lo said, can get help from the organization to fill out self-certification paperwork and verify income. 

Lo and Flisrand said the application process does not require information about citizenship. No one should ask you for green card information and household names won’t be reported to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

At McLemore Holdings, housing navigators will fill out applications for renters, after talking through the questions. This leaves applicants time to focus on the documents. 

“We do all the technology stuff. We scan everything, and we do it from our phone. We use a genius scanner that works really well,” McLemore said. “We can email it to our secure computers.”

Some immigrant renters face a language barrier. But Flisrand said the Zero Balance Project can connect renters with over-the-phone interpretation and translations for the applications (online or on paper). Paper applications are available in English, Hmong, Karen, Oromo, Somali, and Spanish. The online website is available in English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish.

So far, Flisrand said, The Zero Balance Project has completed 1,560 applications. “There are dozens more that I expect to go out in the next day or two,” she added.

Some challenges to obtain emergency rent assistance can stem from landlords. Lo said landlords may threaten or lie to renters about program eligibility; they may refuse to provide documents for the application. 

Renters who experience these refusals or other complications should contact organizations like the Zero Balance Project or other community advocates to get support. Even if landlords refuse to provide documents, renters who are eligible can still apply and receive emergency rent assistance. 

“We feel that it’s very important to serve our community and spread the word, and help encourage them and build their confidence of knowing their rights,” said Lo. 

*Correction: This story has been changed to clarify the role and partners for the Zero Balance Project.

Katelyn Vue is the housing reporter for Sahan Journal. She graduated in May 2022 from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Prior to joining Sahan Journal, she was a metro reporting intern at the Star...