Published October 6, 2021
In recent weeks, CUB has received a lot of phone calls from concerned consumers who have experienced, or are currently facing, utility service disconnections. Some of these consumers are concerned about being disconnected while they are waiting to receive financial assistance for rent and overdue utility bills through the RentHelpMN program. This blog provides a summary of how RentHelpMN might assist Minnesota renters to avoid utility service disconnections. It also provides an update on how RentHelpMN payment delays are being addressed before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (“PUC”).
In late 2020 and early 2021, Congress allocated approximately $46 billion in federal relief to assist renters nationwide struggling to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minnesota Housing and Finance Agency (“MHFA”) is responsible for implementing the statewide Emergency Rental Assistance (“ERA”) programs funded through this allocation. Minnesota received $289 million of this federal funding in January 2021 and expects to receive an additional $229 million. Here is an overview of how those funds have been allocated so far.
Minnesota households eligible to receive ERA assistance include renters whose income is not more than 80% of the area median income, who have experienced financial hardship or a reduction in household income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and who can “demonstrate a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability.” Those who meet these criteria can apply for RentHelpMN assistance here in order to obtain assistance paying rent and/or utility bills and other related housing expenses.
Unfortunately, many consumers who have already applied for RentHelpMN assistance have found that it can take weeks, or even months, for their applications to be processed. This has meant that some consumers have experienced a utility service disconnection while they are waiting for their application to be processed.
How RentHelpMN is being addressed by the PUC
To try to help prevent utility disconnections for RentHelpMN applicants, MHFA filed a letter with the PUC on September 9 requesting that the PUC prohibit disconnections of customers with past due balances who have a pending RentHelpMN application or have been deemed eligible for RentHelpMN assistance. CUB joined several other consumer advocates in filing comments on MHFA’s letter. (This protection would apply to regulated utilities, including the state’s major electric and gas companies and Dakota Electric Association but not other cooperative or municipal utilities.)
We agree with MHFA that action must be taken quickly to help ensure those with pending or approved RentHelpMN applications are not disconnected. However, the primary challenge is not whether utilities will agree to suspend disconnections under these circumstances, but rather how they will determine which customers need that protection.
RentHelpMN is a new program and, unlike energy assistance, which has existed for decades, does not have a data sharing system established with the utilities Therefore, unless a customer proactively informs the utility of their application, the utility has no way of knowing that customer has assistance forthcoming. (Utilities have also not had an easy way to verify customers’ claims that RentHelpMN assistance is forthcoming.)
To address this, we included in our PUC filing several recommendations as to how MHFA can be more transparent and communicative with utilities. MHFA has already reached out to us about these recommendations and is working to incorporate them into its processes and procedures. We are hopeful that, by working closely with utilities, MHFA will be able to balance the need for increased transparency with the need to reasonably protect consumers’ privacy in order to help ensure that those Minnesotans eligible to receive RentHelpMN will avoid disconnection while awaiting that assistance.
What can you do?
If you are awaiting RentHelpMN assistance and are concerned about being disconnected, we encourage you to contact your utility directly to explain the situation. Tell them when you applied for RentHelpMN assistance and the status of your application. (You can look up the status of your application on the RentHelpMN website.)
Also, ask your utility about setting up a payment plan. Now that the heating season is upon us, the Cold Weather Rule prevents consumers with overdue utility bills from being disconnected (and also helps disconnected consumers become reconnected), so long as the consumer establishes and stays current on a payment plan to address their overdue balance.
Finally, if you meet the income guidelines, apply for Energy Assistance. The Energy Assistance Program (also known as “EAP” or “LIHEAP”) provides financial help to income-qualified households for electricity and heating fuels such as natural gas, propane, and wood. Many households who qualify for RentHelpMN are also eligible for Energy Assistance. Energy Assistance funds arrive more quickly than RentHelpMN, and households who have applied for or are receiving Energy Assistance will not be disconnected by the state’s major utilities through April 30, 2022.
And, of course, you can always reach out to us at CUB to see what other programs and assistance you may be eligible for. You can reach us at 651-300-4701.