CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming 2-1-1, which works to connect people with essential health and human services in the state, saw a 285% increase in rental assistance requests and a 95% increase in utility assistance requests in 2020, according to a report from the governor’s office.
“This spike in demand has further increased in 2021, with requests received by 2-1-1 in the first six weeks of 2021 amounting to more than double the six-week average of requests received in 2020,” the report adds.
Wyoming set up a rental assistance program amid the pandemic using federal CARES Act dollars, but 40% of applicants were denied assistance, according to the governor’s office.
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Emily Soli, special counsel and senior policy advisory to Governor Mark Gordon, said on Monday that families continue to be at-risk when it comes to making rent payments and landlords continue to see debt pile up.
Soli told the legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee (JAC) that the state’s rental assistance program is no longer open but that Wyoming has been allocated $200 million under a federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help cover rent and utility payments owed to landlords and utility companies.
Soli told the JAC that the need for rent and utility assistance has increased every month since the pandemic began in March 2020. She said it is not only those who are unemployed who are struggling to pay rent, but also people who have seen their hours or pay cut amid the pandemic.
“Past due rent is extremely high,” one landlord said in the report from the governor’s office. “Stress is extremely high.”
Soli explained that initial responses to a statewide survey of landlords suggest that landlords are owed an average of about $6,800 in past-due rent in Wyoming. Among the 72 survey responses received, landlords reported a total of $458,000 in past due rent owed. One utility company in the state also reported $1.6 million in past-due utility bills since April 2020.
People have been relying on assistance through various nonprofit organizations and religious communities for support, according to the governor’s office report.
“Laramie Interfaith funded $207,773 in rental and utility assistance requests during 2020,” the report quotes Laramie Interfaith, “This was roughly 50% of the requested $408,958 – and probably more. Our capacity, both fiscal and physical, limited our operations. While this figure does include some level of emergency shelter need, it is not inclusive of any requests for this aid as Interfaith does not have the capacity to support shelter requests or track them.”
“Since the beginning of the calendar year 2021, we have received roughly $54,000 in requests for aid and shelter. But, we have only been able to
fund about $18,000.”
The Campbell County Salvation Army reported an 800% in rental assistance requests in 2020 compared with 2019.
“Rent is piling up for families during the eviction moratorium and will need higher dollar amounts to keep them in their homes once the moratorium is lifted,” the Council of Community Services, who serve Campbell, Crook and Weston Counties, said. “Because people are waiting weeks on unemployment benefits, have to take unpaid time for quarantines and illness, and the loss of employment and hours, we have a lot of families who are terrified of losing their homes.”
A representative for Sheridan Health Center and Community Connections said in the governor’s office report that they have received a 270% increase in requests for housing and rental assistance over the last year.
“10 of those individuals were either already homeless or were within 24 hours of being evicted onto the street,” the representative said. “I have had patients freeze to death in their vehicles in Wyoming during the winter due to homelessness and it is heartbreaking.”
A federal eviction moratorium which took effect in Sept. 2020 has been extended by an executive order from President Joe Biden through March 31. Soli said that the eviction moratorium has put landlords “in this unstable place.”
With no ability to evict tenants for past due rent payments, she said some landlords are “not receiving income to offset mortgage costs.”
While the state’s rental assistance program denied 40% of applicants, Soli said that the governor’s office thinks the federal rent assistance program will be able to “provide more relief to more people.”
Gordon issued an executive order on Feb. 10 ordering the Wyoming Department of Family Services to initiate planning to rollout the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program in Wyoming.
Soli told the JAC that Gordon took this action to ensure that the program can begin to help people as quickly as possible, but that legislative action is needed to authorize Wyoming DFS to begin rolling out funding. That authorization would come under draft legislation that would guide federal emergency COVID-19 relief funding in Wyoming.
The governor’s office describes federal rules the state must follow in administering the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in a document provided to the JAC.
“Assistance may only cover rental and utility costs of a residential dwelling,” Gordon’s office said of federal rules guiding the use of the $200 million. “Mortgages cannot be covered.”
“For purpose of this program, utilities include electricity, gas, water and sewer, trash removal, energy costs. Telephone, cable, and internet cannot be covered. The program may also cover ‘other expenses related to housing due, directly or indirectly, to COVID-19.’”
Soli told the JAC that the state is awaiting further guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury regarding what “other expenses related to housing” may be eligible for coverage under the program.
“The federal law caps rental arrears assistance at 12 months, and total rental assistance at 15 months,” the governor’s office says.
Eligibility for assistance includes the following:
- One or more person in the household must qualify for unemployment or have “experienced a reduction in household income, incurred significant costs, or experienced a financial hardship due to COVID-19”
- the household must demonstrate “a risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability”
- the household’s income must be at or below 80% of the area’s median income (determined by HUD)
Payments would be made directly to landlords and utility companies under the program.
Some legislators said during the JAC’s meeting on Monday they had concerns that so long as the eviction moratorium is in place, there may not be enough incentive for tenants to apply for the program.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Drew Perkins (Natrona County) said that he thought implementing the program could wind up being “a train wreck.”
House Appropriations Committe Chair Bob Nicholas (Laramie County) agreed and said it is “going to be an absolute nightmare to get this thing implemented….but we’ve just got to do it.”
Soli noted that the governor’s office had selected Wyoming DFS to administer the program since they deal with other federal rental assistance programs and have a presence in communities throughout Wyoming.
She added that the governor’s office is hopeful that federal guidance will allow the state to use some of the $200 million to ask non-profits throughout the state to help roll the program out and get applications filed across the state.
Soli said that agencies involved will need to be able to “pivot quickly” since federal guidance can change.
Nicholas said he thinks it is important the state rely on community organizations as much as possible to help spread the word about the program and help drive people to it.
If the state is not able to make people aware of the program and fails to have success getting people to apply, Nicholas said Wyoming could end up having to give back a big chunk of the funding to the federal government.
Perkins agreed that help from non-profit organizations would be needed since they are already embedded in communities in Wyoming.
“Somehow, someway we need to take advantage of that,” he said.
Soli said that Wyoming DFS has created a steering committee to plan the administration of the program and that they are working with the following agencies:
- Wyoming Department of Workforce Services
- Wyoming Community Development Authority
- the state auditor’s office
- Wyoming Department of Enterprise Technology Services
- Wyoming Public Service Commission
- Wyoming Business Council
- the governor’s office
Soli said the state is also hopeful that organizations such as the Cheyenne Landlord Association will buy-in to the program and act as partners. She said the Cheyenne Landlord Association, despite the location specific name, involves a network connected to landlords across Wyoming.
One advantage of the federal program is the rules will allow landlords to submit applications so long as their tenants agree to provide information and sign the applications, according to Soli. In addition, the program will help cover payments event if a tenant has moved, unlike the previous program which limited assistance to landlord-tenant situations where the tenant was still occupying the property.
Monday’s Joint Appropriations Committee meeting can be viewed online:
This article originally appeared on Oil City News. Used with permission.