ST. PAUL — Minnesota has so far provided nearly $47 million in back rent assistance through a program that thousands of households applied to, the state's top housing official said Thursday, Sept 2.

With two-thirds of applicants coming from low-income backgrounds or communities of color, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said, the program is reaching the people it was designed to help. But the approval process is time consuming, she acknowledged, and assistance slow to be released.

"This program is not speedy," she said at a virtual news conference. For renters, she said, "it's a really stressful situation to the end."

Officially called RentHelpMN, the relief program launched in April with the expectation that roughly 60,000 renters and landlords would apply. Congress appropriated an initial $375 million in federal funding for it as part of a national effort to make property owners whole and keep tenants sheltered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately 40,000 applications have been submitted since then, Ho said, time in which the federal eviction moratorium came to an end. A state-level ban on most evictions remains in effect in Minnesota.

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Ho said Thursday that Minnesota Housing has revised its estimate and that 50,000 renters and landlords are either behind on or owed rent. She attributed the decrease to the success of some renters finding employment and to assistance programs administered at the local and tribal levels.

As of now, Ho said Minnesota ranks 23rd in the nation in terms of disbursing congressionally appropriated rent aid. Expressing some satisfaction at the housing agency's progress, she said it was working to improve its workflow and communication processes.

Manual reviews of applications, she said, take time to complete but are necessary to make sure an applicant gets the fullest amount of help possible. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has also issued new guidance allowing tenants to request back rent be paid to their former landlords in a bid to reach more people, something Ho said Minnesota was working now to make possible.

Minnesota's rent program already allows applicants to self-attest as to their incomes, an option the Treasury only recently recommended and that Ho said can help to speed up the process.

Ho pointed to the total amount of rent aid requested so far, approximately $220 million, as one sign that Minnesota will likely "obligate" more than 65% of its initial installment of federal housing funds. The Treasury is requiring states to commit at least that much before the end of September, though Ho said it was "hard to imagine" the Treasury clawing back unspent funds.

Eligible renters must be at or below 80% of their county's median income in order to qualify for assistance, which can be used to cover past-due rent or utility payments dating as far back as March 2020. Applications can be submitted to the RentHelpMN website.

Although funding for the program is still available, other forms of eviction protection in Minnesota will expire soon. Tenants who are behind on rent but are not eligible for the assistance program can be evicted beginning Sept. 12.

All eviction protections will be lifted on October 12, meanwhile, unless one has a pending assistance application.