For Duluth tenants, landlords: 'There is help'

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May 17—Brittany Felver stayed employed throughout the pandemic, working at a child care center located in Duluth's East Hillside.

But for the 27-year-old, work could be sporadic at times due to COVID-19 exposures and cold symptoms among the kids. There were times that closures, or even her own exposures, meant she wasn't able to work.

"It's been tough keeping up with some bills, especially as a single mother," Felver said, shortly after pulling her 3-year-old daughter from a pickup truck outside their Harbor Highlands townhome Friday.

"I've been able to keep up with my rent, but I am behind on utilities," Felver told the News Tribune.

She's not alone.

The city of Duluth's Comfort Systems, which manages water, sewer and natural gas services, reported last week there were 1,793 customers more than 90 days past due on utility bills — totaling approximately $970,000.

In terms of rent, some 2,410 St. Louis County households were estimated to be behind on payments, carrying an average of $2,277 each in rent debt accumulated during the pandemic, according to the University of Southern California-related National Equity Atlas.

Last week, Sen. Tina Smith said 53,000 Minnesotans were behind on rent by, on average, $3,000.

"COVID-19 has not been the great equalizer," Smith said Friday. "It's exacerbated the challenges that many low-income communities and communities of color already face."

The previous week, a News Tribune report supported Smith's claim, citing 30% or more of tenants' rents having gone uncollected this year by Center City Housing Corp., which owns a number of Duluth apartment properties and seeks to provide affordable rents.

As the state's politicians wrangle over an end to the eviction moratorium, landlords, property managers, and local and state authorities are encouraging tenants who are behind to apply for relief via RentHelpMN.org. The new website and program open through the end of the year utilizes federal COVID-19 relief money in an effort to prevent as many evictions as possible as the state sets to peel back pandemic-era protections.

"People who qualify can obtain up to 15 months of assistance, and it's important to get caught up while funding is available," said Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development authority.

The Star Tribune reported in April that RentHelpMN was flush with $600 million from the two most recent federal rescue packages.

"It is nice to know that there is help," said Felver, who learned about the program through a note from her property manager.

Frank Rush is a co-founder of East West Property Management in Duluth, handling apartment buildings with as many as 86 units, as well as clients who own as few as one rental unit.

Since it holds promise to ensure payment of back rents, Rush and the others have a vested interest in getting tenants signed up for rent and utility help.

"We've been proactive from day one of this program, and even before that," Rush said. "We're always going to want to work with our residents to come up with payment plans and make unique arrangements to keep them housed, and also to meet our client and property owners' needs."

Owners with 25 or more rental units can absorb a tenant or two falling behind, but Rush said mom-and-pop landlords are hit hard when rents are late. So far a handful of tenants within East West's sphere have applied for the new rental assistance program, Rush said.

Landlords have to complete their own portion of an application for each of their tenants who file for help.

Felver described the filing process as requiring a fair bit of documentation on the part of the applicant.

"Mine didn't go through the first time," she said.

Instead, Felver was directed to talk to a navigator with United Way 211 — the catch-all number for the state's human services assistance.

Barbara Montee is the president of the Duluth Landlord Association. She said the feedback she's getting is that the electronic filing of paperwork is a hurdle.

"There's good intentions all around," she said, "but it's not playing out as well as it would hope for folks."

Still, Montee said landlords are "thrilled about rental assistance, and we'll do everything within our means to make it as simple as possible."

Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho hailed the work of navigators already helping families by "providing the peace of mind that their housing costs will be covered."

"We know property managers and owners are counting on us, too," Ho said.

Montee and Rush both believed it's time to "off-ramp" from the state's eviction moratorium. Rush described "99%" of renters as communicative and proactive with solutions, while noting a small percent of cases finding tenants failing to make an effort, handcuffing landlords during the moratorium.

"Eviction is a necessary tool, where it's kind of that last step when you've exhausted every other possibility or remedy," Rush said. "At some point, it is necessary."

He added that evictions "have been going on," in the cases of tenants who present a danger to other tenants. Though East-West hasn't had to go that route, "there have been exceptions," he said.

Montee called the moratorium on evictions "a dangerous seed to plant," claiming there were those renters who "chose not to pay rent as a first priority because of the moratorium."

"I encourage people to pay housing first," she said.

By and large, that's what people do, said Noah Hobbs, lending director for One Roof Community Housing, which, along with the American Indian Community Housing Organization, is a local field navigator for the RentHelpMN program. One Roof is fielding calls from five or six people a day about rent assistance, Hobbs said, mostly seeking help with technology and language barriers.

"The need is definitely out there, and the money works back to mid-March of 2020," Hobbs said. "So if you were behind in 2020, you can get caught up in 2021."

He understands the hardships all around.

"The goal is to provide housing stability," Hobbs said. "And if the landlords aren't able to account for rent money, they're unable to continue their cash flow during the pandemic."

And while the program runs through the end of the year, Fulton spoke to a sense of urgency in getting the process started sooner than later.

"There's a lot of hiring going on, so hopefully people will stay current (on rent) going forward," Fulton said, describing Duluth and St. Louis County as being hit fourth-hardest in the state by back rent debt following Hennepin, Ramsey and Dakota counties.

Fulton explained Duluth was a city aiming to improve its housing stock — by expanding its supportive housing to go along with a series of different commercial developments happening across the city.

"The challenge is that takes time, and as we work to expand the city's housing stock we are concurrently working to make sure people remain safely housed in the circumstances they have today," Fulton explained, urging people behind on rent to seek help.

For Felver, there was never a risk of missing rent. But getting her utilities caught up will make her feel whole again.

"I'm hoping it works," she said, planning a second attempt to file for assistance. "Any relief is better than no relief."

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