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Head Of Congress' Pandemic Crisis Committee Calls Out Wyoming For Underutilizing Rental Assistance Funds

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina
Claire Harbage
Rep. James Clyburn

Out of all 50 states, Wyoming has awarded the smallest percentage of its allotted emergency rental assistance funds.

The U.S. representative who helms Congress' Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is calling out the state's leadership for failing to distribute more.

"As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus, keeping families in homes is not only the right economic decision, but a crucial public health one," said Democratic South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.

Wyoming has $180 million it can distribute in emergency rental assistance, but so far, just more than $4 million has gone to struggling renters. That's less than three percent, and it's the smallest percentage in the nation, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Clyburn said that figure is unacceptable.

"We must do everything we can to make sure no American family is left out in the cold," he said. "This is not any kind of a handout; this is trying to keep people in their homes. This is a pandemic we're dealing with and if people are put out of the streets, they're going to find themselves in double jeopardy — not just not having a home, but they will be subjected to the ravages of COVID-19."

Clyburn wrote letters to Governor Mark Gordon and four other governors in the states that have distributed less than three percent. Those other states include the Dakotas, Arkansas and Alabama.

Rep. Clyburn’s letter to Gov. Gordon asks for a response by the first week of September — a response identifying steps the state has taken to "streamline" distribution and answering questions about program specifics.

"I’m looking to understand where the issues are in your states so that we can fix them," Clyburn told reporters Monday, Aug. 30th.

The letter also criticizes the state's "sluggish distribution of assistance."

" ... Your state is ranked last in assistance distribution in the nation, putting Wyoming renters at greater risk of losing their homes and Wyoming landlords in greater financial distress," Clyburn writes. "Although relief payments, tax cuts for families with children, expanded unemployment assistance, and the improving economy appear to have enabled many rental households to make their payments, a significant number are still in jeopardy."

Landlords Refusing Payment

A major hurdle in places like Wyoming has been landlords refusing the funds. Diane Yentel runs the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and said her organization is finding that many landlords would prefer to evict tenants than accept the federal dollars.

"Some landlords in what are now hot rental markets see a new incentive in evicting tenants and raising rents — sometimes doubling rent — and getting new tenants and making more money in the long-run," Yentel said. "In communities like Wyoming or Arkansas or some of these other slow-spending states, we're finding that many of the smaller landlords have unlicensed, or other informal, illegal units and they're not able to access the funds."

Yentel said the solution to both of these problems is to give money directly to tenants. That's an option emergency rental assistance programs have, but one that many are not using, Yentel said.

Clyburn's letter also highlighted this issue, urging Wyoming to follow Yentel's recommendation and other best practices being employed by more successful programs across the country.

"The administrators of the successful rental assistance program in Houston–Harris County have found that forming partnerships with community organizations and conducting extensive outreach to renters and landlords is critical to effective assistance distribution," Clyburn's letter to Gordon reads. "It is vital that you promptly consider employing these strategies to deliver relief to those at risk of eviction and homelessness."

Gov. Gordon's Response

Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for Gov. Gordon, said Wyoming is already doing this, and that Clyburn's assessment is unfair.

"Ultimately, we believe that the data analysis is misleading as it compares each state's expenditures to the amount allocated, rather than providing each state's per-capita expenditures," Pearlman said. "The amount allocated to Wyoming was the statutory minimum and was not based on Wyoming's population, or level of need. Further, the best practices suggested in the letter have been implemented by Wyoming's ERAP (Emergency Rental Assistance Program) from the beginning."

In per-capita terms, Wyoming is not the lowest distributor of emergency rental assistance. According to U.S. Census Bureau population figures and the National Low Income Housing Coalition's tabulation of funds distributed, Wyoming has awarded about $7 per resident.

That puts it ahead of 15 other states and significantly higher than the lowest per-capita distributor, Arkansas, which has awarded just $1.29 per resident. But Wyoming is several times less than the highest per-capita distributors. Alaska has paid more than $150 per resident; Washington, D.C. more than $140; Maine and New York more than $40 per resident. The average is just more than $17 awarded per resident.

In one month, the U.S. Treasury has the option to sweep up funds from states like Wyoming, that haven’t spent that much, and give it to cities or states that are distributing more. That money could be reallocated to states like New York or Texas, which have both distributed more than 60 percent of their emergency rental assistance.

"The Department of Treasury can recapture funds that haven't been spent from low-performing states and cities and reallocate it to communities that have spent at least 65 percent of their emergency rental assistance," Yentel said.

She added that her organization is urging the Treasury to do this in a way that does not harm tenants.

"Those funds should be taken from the entities that cannot or will not spend the money fast enough, and given to entities that can — especially community-based organizations," Yentel said.

Some community-based organizations in Wyoming are currently helping to connect people with rental assistance. Separate funding is available through the Wind River Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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