Trouble with rent? Here's how to get help during the pandemic

apartment for rent
A sign advertises an apartment for rent along a row of brownstone townhouses in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
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Updated: July 22, 4:20 p.m. | Posted: July 21, 3:30 p.m.

MPR News has received a number of questions on what to do if you’re struggling to pay for housing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Tim Walz recently announced that Minnesota would have access to $100 million in federal funds dedicated to housing assistance. But how does that money help people struggling with rent?

We reached out to a few housing assistance experts to help answer some questions about how to get some rent relief.

How can people who have borrowed money, pawned or sold items, etc., and used nearly all their income JUST to pay their rent get some relief? All other utilities and bills have had to go unpaid because we dutifully paid our rent and are now in debt. — Sheila

There are a number of organizations that can provide rent relief — and if you’re facing a tough financial situation where you can’t afford rent, there are some steps you can take.

Start a conversation with your landlord

It’s probably a bit intimidating to make a call to your landlord or mortgage lender to say you won’t be able to cover the bill, but it’s better to give them a heads up rather than come to the day that the payment is due and not be able to pay. There’s a chance you can set up a reduced payment or a payment plan with your landlord, said Randi Callahan, a family advocacy coordinator at Three Rivers Community Action Agency.

A lot of people are afraid that if they tell their landlord, ‘I can't pay my rent,’ they're going to automatically get that eviction notice. But a lot of landlords are small business owners and they're not large entities,” Callahan said. “They're usually pretty willing to work with households to help keep them housed and get them caught up when they're able.”

A mortgage lender may work out a plan to extend your mortgage a little longer. Callahan suggests taking the time to understand the details. Some lenders might be able to waive all of the payment for a period of time; others might require you pay the interest or the taxes.

Reach out to housing assistance programs

The next step is to contact a local agency that handles housing assistance. That might be a county government, a non-profit, a tribal government or a community action agency. They can help facilitate a potential payment plan, and offer some additional assistance with things like food, energy or child care.

“Some of these systems can be really hard to navigate and are really complicated,” Callahan said. “Advocates, like our agency and many other agencies, are experienced at navigating these resources.”

Even if you call ahead prior to the time that you qualify for relief, these housing assistance specialists can help you prepare by letting you know if you need any kind of paperwork beforehand.

If you’re not sure which organization to contact, you can call United Way’s 211 hotline and they can help connect you to the correct agency for your location. Housinglink.org also has a few resources to reach out to on their website.

One more note: Gov. Walz announced recently that Minnesota received about $100 million in federal funds for housing assistance. That money is planned to help people with back-pay on late payments, but it won’t go directly to renters. Instead, the funds will funnel through housing assistance programs to help pay back missed rent directly to landlords. Minnesota Housing told MPR News that they expect local programs to start using the funds in mid-August.

Are there any guidelines or rules about rent increases during this time? Our landlord just issued a $150 rent increase for July 1. — Janet

The short answer is no: There aren’t any restrictions on how rent can be adjusted.

The governor’s emergency executive order that was issued to suspend evictions does not have any protection on changing the rent. Currently, it only prevents an eviction except for some outstanding circumstances.

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