Cheyenne Landlord Association questions details of eviction program in special session bill

CHEYENNE – The Cheyenne Landlord Association has been hesitant to support a program aiming to stave off evictions that will be considered during the Wyoming Legislature’s special session today and Saturday.

The program, outlined in one of at least five bills expected to be considered during the special session, would offer grants to landlords who have lost at least 25% of their rental income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In exchange, those landlords who applied for the assistance would not be allowed to evict anyone in a household financially impacted by the virus.

If approved, the program would provide another option for landlords, though it would not be the temporary ban on evictions and foreclosure that a coalition of community organizations recently called for in a letter to Gov. Mark Gordon. The governor, in recent press conferences, has repeatedly stated his desire to help both landlords and tenants navigate their economic challenges.

The program before the Legislature, however, has drawn questions from some local landlords, who wonder how it would actually work. In a letter sent to State Auditor Kristi Racines earlier this month, Cheyenne Landlord Association President Julie Gliem noted several “procedural flaws” in the program as drafted.

As Gliem put it in an interview Thursday, “the devil is in the details” with the legislation. For example, the program as written extends to anyone who has lost their job or had their pay cut and is “unable to pay rent,” but the bill leaves it to the Wyoming Community Development Authority to establish rules on what qualifies as being unable.

Under the bill draft, WCDA would receive an initial $10 million in federal relief funds to run the program. Given the stimulus relief that has already arrived for some tenants and the alternative payment plans available from landlords, Gliem wondered whether that much funding was necessary for the program.

“Could we use that money somewhere else?” Gliem asked. “I know that the economy across the board needs assistance.”

Yet while rental evictions for properties secured by federally backed mortgages are prohibited until late July, many have still taken a hit. In Cheyenne, landlords of some low-income units have seen as much as 75% of their tenants not paying rent amid the pandemic, Gliem said.

“On my middle-income landlords, it’s a lot closer to 25% (who can’t pay), and on the higher income, it’s less than 10%,” she added.

Dianna Svitvasky, owner of Crown Property Management in Cheyenne, said it’s important to remember landlords have also been left in a bind on mortgage payments due to the pandemic.

“Especially here in Wyoming, these are individuals or small LLCs that have just bought a property here or there,” Svitvasky said.

Svitvasky has a couple of tenants who are at risk of being evicted, though her property management group has put together pay plans for those struggling to make ends meet. The decision on whether to evict ultimately falls to the building owner, though the property management group is usually the first to learn.

“The classic line is, ‘We disclose, (the owners) decide,’” Svitvasky said.

While the bill before the Legislature focuses mainly on rent payment, Gliem noted it doesn’t address another side of the issue: utility payments. Though companies like Black Hills Energy have allowed some customers to enter into long-term payment plans, the bills can pile up quickly.

“You’re gonna hear people say, ’The utility companies aren’t shutting the utilities off right now.’ Well, the key words are right now,” Gliem said. “At some point, they are going to start turning utilities off, and these tenants are going to have to come up with big dollars to get them restored.”

Several lawmakers have reached out to Gliem in the past week to get her takes on the program. With the special session set to move at a rapid pace today and Saturday, opportunities to talk to lawmakers will likely be limited.

“Once they get going, I don’t know that there’ll be a lot of room for public comment,” Gliem said.

Though no moratorium has been issued, eviction proceedings in most Wyoming courts have been suspended until at least next month. Svitvasky, who has already had a few tenants move out in recent weeks from some properties she manages, said it’s a reality that “there’s some that won’t make the cut.”

“I just feel bad for anybody that’s going through this, tenant or owner,” Svitvasky said. “It’s a tough issue for everyone, and we’re trying to walk that thin line and take care of everybody.”