Wyoming takes second shot at rent assistance
CASPER — In 2020, the Wyoming Community Development Authority got $15 million of federal CARES Act money to help renters and mortgage holders pay off debts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of December, just $1.7 million of that had been distributed. The rest went back to the state.
The program’s guidelines were too restrictive, officials said, and word didn’t seem to get out fast enough that assistance was even available. After six months, the program had gotten just over 2,000 applications and had denied 40 percent of those.
Now, a more flexible and wide-reaching program run by the Department of Family Services is aiming to distribute $180 million in its first wave of assistance to renters and landlords.
And it couldn’t come soon enough — by the time it rolls out, likely around the end of April, Wyoming renters will have gone four months without any statewide assistance available.
Last year’s program was governed by guidelines set out by the Wyoming Legislature during a special session in May.
This time around, both the money and the rules for its distribution come from the federal government. The new program will cover things like late fees and utilities in addition to rent, and payments can go directly to landlords as well as renters.
Even if someone lives in a different place now, they can apply for money to pay off a debt they left at a former residence.
The money can be used for future rent payments up to three months in advance, and applicants can qualify based on increased expenditures or reduced work hours related to COVID-19, not just lost income or employment.
“There’s about 44,000 renter households that meet the eligibility requirements,” Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt said. “There’s a good percentage of those households that spend up to 50 percent of their monthly income on rent.”
The 2020 program served as a kind of test run for this year’s rollout. Its eligibility was too restrictive to provide any wide-reaching financial relief, officials said.
It initially required applicants to make a copay of 30 percent of their monthly income and prove that their need was related to COVID-19. The money could only be used for existing rental debts, not for utilities or to pay future rent payments. It also capped the amount anyone could receive at $3,000 per month (the new guidelines have no monetary limit and dictate that applicants can receive assistance for up to 15 months).
Because of those restrictions, and possibly because word about the program seemed to spread slowly despite radio and social media advertisements, the WCDA distributed just $1,729,295.25 in rental assistance in 2020 — about 11.5 percent of the money they received — even after lowering the copay requirement to 10 percent midway through the year.
And in a state where Schmidt says 44,000 people need rent assistance, the agency only received 2,262 applications from June through December.
Of those, WCDA Executive Director Scott Hoversland said 1,202 were approved. Forty percent were denied. Most of those, Hoversland said, didn’t adequately prove that their need was caused by the pandemic.
This year’s program has more wiggle room on that requirement, allowing applicants who have been directly or indirectly impacted by COVID-19 to receive assistance.
Realizing they wouldn’t be able to get millions out to renters before the Dec. 30 deadline, Hoversland said the agency sent back $10 million to the state in October, then another $2.5 million one month later.
After the deadline passed, the remaining money — nearly half a million dollars — also went back to the state where it was redistributed to other pandemic-related programs.
Now, Wyomingites — besides those on the Wind River Reservation, where the rental assistance program is up and running — have gone three months without any available statewide rental assistance for those affected by COVID-19.
And by the time the new program, administered by DFS with help from the Department of Workforce Services, rolls out around the end of April, it will have almost been four months.
That means people are likely going to be seeking assistance for multiple months, Schmidt said.
And with $180 million ready for allocations, the biggest task facing the department now is finding people who need that money and getting it to them. That process can start once the state passes a bill giving the department the go-ahead to begin accepting applications.
As of Friday, that bill had passed both chambers and was headed to the governor’s desk.
Once that passes, DFS will be authorized to distribute all incoming federal funding related to housing relief, including an additional $152 million coming to Wyoming from the American Rescue Plan passed in March. That money will come incrementally as the state meets certain spending thresholds, according to Michael Pearlman, spokesperson for Gov. Mark Gordon.
Officials say that DFS was tapped to lead this year’s program because they have a wider reach around the state, with offices in every county. DFS has experience managing the other federally funded programs including food stamps and the Employee Assistance Program, Schmidt said. It also has existing ties to local organizations that already have connections to their communities and know where the assistance may be needed most.
Under the Casper-based WCDA’s administration, Natrona County saw a disproportionate amount of both applications and money awarded. The agency received more than 600 applications from residents of the county and assisted just over 300 of those applicants.
Teton County had the next-highest number of applications in the state but only saw about half the number in Natrona County.
Schmidt said they’ve been working with the WCDA and learning from obstacles the agency ran into during its rollout.
For one, the department is dropping nearly $10 million on a contract with consulting firm Deloitte to cover an online application platform, technical support, case management and a call center to help people fill out their applications. That money is coming out of $20 million the department already has on hand to set up the program.
Part of that administrative allocation will also go toward providing legal assistance, housing stability services and more to vulnerable populations including domestic violence survivors and senior citizens.
For people who may not have internet access or the technical savvy to navigate an online form, DFS plans to allocate part of its funding through county governments. The counties can then divvy the money up among organizations they’ve already been working with during previous rounds of CARES Act or other federal funding.
The program has a tentative deadline of Sept. 30, but Schmidt says that may change.
If 65 percent of that $180 million isn’t distributed or marked for distribution by then, she said the money could be taken back by the federal government and reallocated to other states who use theirs up.
Until the program boots up later in April, members of the public can sign up for email updates, get more information about eligibility and respond to a survey to help shape the application process on the Department of Family Services’ website.