Rules, timing complicate state's temporary eviction relief program

CHEYENNE – After the Wyoming Legislature’s special session wrapped up in mid-May, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Gordon praised legislation creating a program to help residents avoid eviction amid the economic turmoil of COVID-19.

But about two months after the program began in June, just a small fraction of the money allocated – about 2% of the $15 million appropriated by state lawmakers – has made it out the door.

The eviction program, run by the Wyoming Community Development Authority, had received 551 applications as of Friday, and roughly $350,000 in rental assistance has been approved for residents. Most of the payments, which are capped at $2,000 per applicant, have been for rental assistance due to the pandemic, with just a few for help on mortgages and hazard insurance.

The low numbers have partially been due to lower initial demand than expected, WCDA Deputy Director Lesli Wright said Friday. With the legislation passed in mid-May, the program began taking applications June 1, more than two months after the pandemic began in Wyoming.

“By that time, I think a lot of folks had turned to faith-based organizations, nonprofits, places like that for assistance, and may have gotten some of their needs taken care of that way,” Wright said.

There was another reason for the slow pace, Wright said, as rules crafted by the housing assistance organization have kept some from qualifying. Applicants for the program were only eligible for the aid to supplement any housing expenses exceeding 30% of their income – a metric historically used as a threshold for housing affordability.

The legislation passed in mid-May left rule-making fairly open, requiring only the inclusion of "required income thresholds and mandatory copayment obligations.”

That 30% threshold, which Wright referred to as the copay, left some Wyomingites who qualified for federal stimulus checks and added unemployment benefits unable to access the program.

"Thirty percent of $2,400 (in monthly unemployment benefits) is roughly $750,” Wright said. “So if their rent was $600, and their copay is $750, we wouldn't be able to help that household."

“We're finding that that 30% copay may have been a little aggressive, so we're hoping to bring that down to something less,” she added.

Rules for the program, which was modeled after one in Montana, could soon be amended, as the WCDA has developed new rules to be submitted to the Attorney General’s office.

Even if the revisions lowering the 30% threshold take some time to be approved, more residents will soon qualify for the WCDA program, as the $600 weekly unemployment benefits from Congress expired last week with the two parties still debating the next relief package. 

“The less money that you have, the more help you can get through our program,” Wright said.

The deputy director mentioned how difficult it can be to get the word out about these kinds of assistance programs, and the numbers also indicate some sort of disconnect.

In response to a Household Pulse survey from the U.S. Census earlier in July, roughly 13,000 Wyoming residents, out of about 90,000 in-state respondents, reported having little-to-no confidence in their ability to pay rent next month.

The state only has until the end of the year to spend its $1.25 billion distribution of federal CARES Act money, and the same time crunch applies for the WCDA program.

“We are concerned (about distributing the money),” Wright said. “That’s why we ... approved some program changes to try and loosen up those evaluation criteria, so that we can get more of the money out, (and) because we know people need it."