Distribution of federal rent assistance begins

CHEYENNE — For months, Ruth Rubeling didn’t know she’d had COVID-19.

After a two-month bout of double pneumonia, the Cheyenne resident struggled with what she was told was a multiple sclerosis relapse. Finally, after several tests, an echocardiogram in July showed she had heart failure, which Rubeling’s doctor linked to the novel coronavirus.

Uninsured, unable to work, and saddled with new medications costing her between $1,500 and $1,700 per month, Rubeling and her husband knew they would need help to keep themselves and their four children – one of whom is high-risk – in their home.

“The money that we did have coming in was not enough to cover both my rent and my medications, but I had to have my medications in order to live,” Rubeling said.

This realization prompted her to reach out to people she knew in the community and through the school district, who recommended she apply for funds through the Wyoming Community Development Authority. Rubeling and her family began receiving rental assistance in August.

“It was (a) huge relief to me and my family, because it honestly was the difference between me having my medicine and living, and having a place to live,” she said.

Though the WCDA-run program ended Dec. 30, Gov. Mark Gordon signed an executive order Feb. 8 assigning the Wyoming Department of Family Services to administer a new $200 million in federal funding for rental and utility assistance for people struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a Friday news release, the Department of Family Services said it had begun the planning phase to distribute funds from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. DFS will work alongside the Department of Workforce Services and other state agencies, plus the Wyoming Legislature and community partners.

“Although the exact reach of the program still needs to be defined by the United States Treasury, the program should help Wyoming residents with rental assistance, maintaining safe housing, and avoiding evictions and past-due utility bills due to the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Department of Family Services said in the release.

Wyoming 211, a hotline that helps connect callers in need with nonprofit and government services, reported a 280 percent increase in calls for rental assistance in 2020, according to a news release accompanying Gordon’s executive order.

Those who qualify for the program could receive payments for both past-due and current bills for up to 15 months between March 13, 2020, and March 31, 2022. Along with rental assistance, utility payments for water, sewer, trash, electricity, gas and fuel oil or propane could be covered. Current federal guidelines do not include telephone, cable television or internet costs, and homeowners and commercial properties are not eligible.

The state Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee plans to discuss the rental assistance program’s parameters on Monday.

Julie Gliem, president of the Cheyenne Landlord Association, which recently expanded to serve landlords across Wyoming, estimated only about $10-$15 million was owed in rent and utility bills statewide. But Gliem said there are still many people who have been financially affected by the pandemic, whether directly or indirectly, who could benefit from the aid.

“You don’t necessarily have to have COVID. You don’t even necessarily have to have lost your job. ... Maybe it’s because, all of a sudden, you’ve found yourself homeschooling your child,” she said.

Landlords want their tenants to apply for rental and utility assistance programs, Gliem said, because a tenant’s inability to pay rent, and sometimes utilities, can end up affecting the landlord’s income and livelihood.

“A significant amount of your landlords – probably 50-60 percent of them – are small mom-and-pop operations. They’re not your big corporations – they’re just someone that, for whatever reason, has a rental, or maybe they bought into the rental market,” she said. “And so they have mortgages to pay, they have bills to pay, as well.”

Scott Hoversland, executive director of the Wyoming Community Development Authority, said more than $1.7 million in rental and mortgage assistance was distributed through the WCDA-led program in 2020 – a fraction of the $15 million in CARES Act funding allocated to helping renters in Wyoming. The remainder was returned by the agency to be spent elsewhere in the state.

“We didn’t have any good numbers of how many people would need rental assistance and those types of things, you know, immediately when the pandemic struck,” Hoversland said.

So $15 million was put aside “to make sure we had enough, which was good, but then it also, I think, gave an expectation to people that we’re going to use all that,” he continued.

A special legislative session last May set criteria for the program, requiring those receiving rental assistance to still pay a portion of their rent. At first, WCDA only approved funds to pay the difference between 30 percent of the household’s monthly income and its monthly rent or mortgage payment, up to $3,000 per month. The group later lowered this threshold to 10 percent in August after a lack of applicants.

Of the 2,262 applications the agency received, about 53 percent received payment, 40 percent were denied, and 7 percent were withdrawn by the applicant. The Legislature also set the program’s end date for Dec. 30, regardless of whether all of the money had been distributed.

Because the guidelines set out by the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program are more broad than those set by the state in last year’s WCDA-run program, and because of the lessons the state learned through the process, Hoversland believes the new rental assistance program will be different.

“When you start up a program that hasn’t been run in the state, you learn a lot of things from that,” he said.

And while WCDA has one office in Casper, the Department of Family Services and Department of Workforce Services have offices throughout the state, which could be beneficial to people who need help filling out an application, Hoversland said.

In January, Rubeling was cleared by her doctor to work part-time, and she feels “200 percent better” today than she did a year ago. Though she hopes she won’t need to apply for rental assistance again, things are never certain.

“We have a family of six. So, with food and everything else, you have to be able to survive,” Rubeling said. “It takes both (my husband and I) to work – even if (I’m) just part-time, it’ll still let us survive.”