Emergency Financial Assistance: Improving policies and procedures to ensure families in crisis have timely access to assistance
The COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized housing for many households even as a variety of federal, state, and local programs have been created to support families through these challenging times. Yet even before the pandemic, 178,000 renter households and 159,000 homeowner households in the Twin Cities paid at least 30% of their income toward housing. For many, just one emergency – an unexpected healthcare bill or car repair – could result in missing a rent or mortgage payment leading to eviction or homelessness.
Fair, predictable, and timely access to emergency financial resources can make the difference between remaining stably housed or bearing the costs, stress, and health risks of displacement. Building upon lessons learned from the pandemic response, we see an opportunity to build a stronger emergency assistance system that responds with urgency to the needs of families facing a housing stability crisis. Furthermore, we see an opportunity to better understand and respond to the changing needs of communities across Minnesota by building upon emergency delivery systems being developed to respond to the pandemic.
Emergency Resources in Minnesota
In Minnesota, Emergency Assistance (EA) is available for qualifying families with children, while Emergency General Assistance (EGA) is available for qualifying adults without children. EA and EGA are administered by county governments using Federal (EA) and State (EGA) sources of funding.
The Family Homelessness Prevention Assistance Program (FHPAP) distributes state dollars to community- organizations throughout the state to further supplement emergency needs of families and individuals. Typically, a household applying to FHPAP must demonstrate they have already applied to and been denied from EA or EGA programs in order to be eligible for FHPAP.
Additionally, there are a myriad of other relatively small assistance programs run by faith-based and community organizations, and loosely affiliated groups that households may apply to for help. Still more programs support housing stability by delivering renter education, financial education, credit building services, and more.
Examining Emergency Assistance Programs
Family Housing Fund examined emergency assistance programs in the 7-county Metro, St. Louis County (Duluth area) and Olmsted County (Rochester area)as they operated before the pandemic in order to inform improvements to program policies and procedures. As a premise for this work, we assumed that counties’ written policies reflect how EA and EGA programs operate in those jurisdictions. To supplement our research and begin gathering feedback, we met with program staff at six Twin Cities counties, and staff at the state agency that currently administers EA and EGA allocations to counties, to discuss our recommendations and learn more about their experiences and interest in system improvements.
Our recommendations to state and county leadership, presented below, aim to align EA and EGA policies and application procedures with the urgency demanded by a housing crisis, thus prioritizing housing stability. Minnesota law allows counties to amend their EA and EGA policies and application procedures at any time (Minnesota Statute 256J.626).
Family Housing Fund Recommendations to State and County Leadership
1. Evaluate the assistance programs deployed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and apply lessons learned to ongoing emergency financial assistance programs.
For example, compare tenant-based and landlord-based programs for efficacy and timeliness, and look to pandemic response programs that imposed fewer application/verification requirements.
2. Centralize delivery and administration of emergency financial assistance programs under a single state-sponsored platform, creating a statewide virtual tenant resource center.
Offer easy-to-understand information on eligibility rules and application procedures; online application options supported by staff; a staff-facing dashboard tracking program balances, demand, and performance metrics; and a public-facing dashboard on available programs and real-time program balances.
3. Over time, use the virtual tenant resource center to coordinate delivery of additional services that support housing stability, including renter education, financial education, and credit building services.
4. Determine and implement key measures of program performance such as EA and EGA awards and amounts, denials and reasons, and expenditures vs. county allocations.
Ensure there is efficient means of accountability for program performance within and across counties.
5. Respond with the urgency a housing emergency demands, ensuring no more than 5 days from when the applicant initiated the process to notification of an award decision.
Currently, the stated timeframe to notify an applicant of an award decision (usually meaning “approved, denied, or pending”) varies from 5 days up to 30 days in the counties we examined. In Minnesota, the eviction process unfolds in 14 days.
6. Evidence of a missed rent payment or an eviction filing should not be required to demonstrate eligibility for EA, EGA, or FHPAP.
Households should be encouraged to request assistance as soon as they know they may not be able to pay the next month’s rent.
7. Ensure consistency and transparency of policies across Minnesota counties, especially those relating to frequency of assistance, application requirements, and the maximum amount of assistance that can be funded.
Emergency assistance is critical for preventing eviction and supporting housing stability. For many families, these programs offer the best chance of staying in their homes when faced with an unexpected housing stability crisis. Our recommended improvements will ensure EA, EGA, and FHPAP funds can be administered quickly and in combination with other available resources to effectively meet the needs of households in crisis. Improved data collection on housing stability needs across the state will inform policies, procedures, and resource distribution over time. Convenience and transparency will ease the application process and make it accessible for those in need. With these improvements, we have the opportunity to stabilize housing for thousands of Minnesotans – an important goal at any time and particularly critical during a global pandemic.