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Wyoming's Rental Assistance Program has helped 17,000 families stay in their homes. But the program ends today

A woman and her roommate are outside their dilapidated house in the winter, with their belongings on the ground.
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Radio
Two young renters are evicted from a Laramie rental in March 2020. The Emergency Rental Assistance Program helped 17,000 Wyoming households, including almost 1,300 in Albany County.

Wyoming's Emergency Rental Assistance Program has helped thousands remain in their homes during a time of rising rental costs. But it was hampered along the way by Wyoming's refusal to shut down during the pandemic, a lack of preexisting aid infrastructure and by landlords initially refusing to accept the payments.

Despite those setbacks, the Wyoming Department of Family Services has distributed more than $108 million to families across Wyoming since launching in mid-2021. The money came from a pair of federal programs meant to keep people housed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and helped Wyomingites make rent and utility payments. At its height, the program was distributing $6 million a month.

But DFS Director Korin Schmidt said it took a while to build up that capacity.

"A lot of the states that were able to spend those dollars the fastest had programs in place," she said. "So they were just feeding new dollars into programs that existed. We had to start from scratch."

The assistance came from two back-to-back programs, known colloquially as ERAP1 and ERAP2. But that first program was very restrictive; individuals had to prove their hardships were specifically caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that was difficult in a state that never properly shut down.

"Because of the way Wyoming responded overall to COVID, we didn't really have the significance of the COVID impact that other communities did, like California, New York, etc.," Schmidt said. "So it wasn't necessarily that there was a lack of need. It really was that the original dollars were restrictive enough that people were not qualifying."

That meant that Wyoming had to give back a lot of the money from that first program. The federal government then redistributed that money to other states that had already spent their first pool of cash. Schmidt said DFS found ERAP2 money easier to move.

"When ERAP2 came in, they had relaxed a lot of the eligibility criteria," she said. "Once they did that, that's when we were really able to start spending those dollars."

The rental assistance program has helped 17,000 Wyoming households, paying some $82 million to landlords, $20 million directly to renters and putting another $6 million toward utility payments.

A map showing how much money each Wyoming county received from the state's emergency rental assistance program, as well as how many households were helped.
Wyoming Department of Family Services

Now, the program is coming to a close, and Wyoming's renting population must now fend for themselves. That includes many of the state's poorest residents.

Nearly every community in Wyoming is facing a housing crunch and most say they need more affordable and workforce housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Wyoming has a shortage of about 10,000 units when it comes to having affordable rental housing for extremely low income families.

In Albany County, government officials and others have been trying to address the housing crisis for years. Albany is unique in that about half of its population rents the home they live in. And throughout the life of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, nearly 1,300 Albany County residents received a collective $7.3 million in rental and utility assistance.

Laramie Interfaith was a community partner for the state program. Its staff helped clients fill out and submit applications for rental and utility assistance. Executive Director Josh Watanabe said the assistance was life-changing for some people.

"We've had clients who were able to move into a place, have stable housing for the length of time that it took them to find a job that would allow them to afford to keep paying that rent," Watanabe said. "And then to take those next steps in their lives to create self-sufficiency."

But there are many more who haven’t been able to, and Watanabe said he worries about what will happen now that the well has run dry. His organization is already seeing increased need at its food pantry.

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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