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Wyoming Kicks Off $180 Million Emergency Rental Assistance Program

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The federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program is giving $25 billion to states, large cities and tribes. This program seeks to improve upon previous attempts at rental assistance. Wyoming's cut of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program is about $180 million, with additional money for program administration.

The Department of Family Services is responsible for distributing the money. Director Korin Schmidt said it's already received more than 2,000 applications, requesting more than $4 million in rental and utility assistance.

"So there's a need out there," Schmidt said. "We had no idea really how much need there would be. A high estimate was about 44,000 households would qualify but, of those, about 22,000 to 23,000 would probably be in a situation where they needed assistance."

Wyoming isn't the only state facing these challenges.

Andrew Aurand, vice president for research with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said that nationwide, renters are struggling.

"There's about 44 million renter households in the United States," he said. "And about a quarter of them are extremely low-income renters."

Many of those low income renters work in service industries like restaurants and tourism, which took a big hit during the pandemic. U.S. renters owe an estimated $60 billion in rent and utility arrears from the pandemic alone.

This new program is not the first attempt at pandemic-related rental assistance. In May, the U.S. House approved a $100 billion rental assistance program, but Senate Republicans killed it.

Most states, including Wyoming, used some of their CARES funding to set up a rental assistance program. But when all was said and done, Wyoming's program gave out just less than $2 million.

Aurand said these earlier attempts failed, in part, because most places didn't know how to run such a program.

"For many of them, this was new," Aurand said. "They didn't have an emergency rental assistance program before the pandemic so they were learning how to do it, they had to ramp up staff, they had to build up infrastructure to process applications, they had to decide how to implement the program. So, there was a learning curve."

The National Low Income Housing Coalition is now trying to ensure that states get the most they can out of this new program.

The coalition even got revisions made to the U.S. Treasury's guidance for spending this new rental assistance money. While the new guidance is technically for a future round of funding, Aurand said it makes sense for states and other jurisdictions to set up a single program now that meets all the guidance and can be carried over into and future funding.

Research conducted by the coalition and their university partners found that burdensome documentation requirements were a major hurdle for applicants in previous assistance programs.

"One of the biggest areas was documentation," Aurand said.

But the new guidance allows for self-attestations - documents an applicant can sign under penalty of perjury, saying they faced hardships during the pandemic.

DFS Director Korin Schmidt said this will help Wyoming households who had to make tough decisions.

"There are some significant costs, such as medical care, child care, transportation or expenses that you incurred because of COVID that you wouldn't necessarily say had a direct effect on your rent," Schmidt said. "But it certainly affected your household budget, and that made rent more difficult to pay. Or maybe somebody chose not to pay their rent and instead paid their food bill, for example."

Another hurdle for renters: their landlords.

Aurand said previous programs didn't have a way to give money directly to tenants if landlords refused to participate.

"So you would have applicants applying, they would be eligible for the assistance, but the landlord could just say, 'no, I'm not going to take it, I'd rather get rid of this tenant,'" Aurand said. "And the tenant couldn't do anything."

So the new guidance allows payments to go directly to tenants when landlords refuse to take part.

DFS Director Schmidt said it's still the state's preference that landlords get on board.

"However, we recognize that some landlords may not participate," she said. "So, after a certain number of attempts to reach the landlord, if we're not able to receive confirmation from the landlord, then there is the allowance to pay the tenant directly. So that is an option."

All-in-all, administrators and housing activists are hoping this program does more good than previous attempts at rental assistance. There's enough money in the program to help poor - and even not-so-poor - renters in the coming months.

But will it make a dent in the housing crisis, and allow low income people to afford housing?

Laramie Interfaith Director Josh Watanabe, who works with this population all the time, said he's not sure.

"That's the $180 million question," Watanabe said. "I don't know. It is a lot of money. Whether or not that will put a temporary fix to the housing crisis, and the problems that people face, is a different question entirely."

Interfaith serves Albany County - the state's poorest - but other counties have also received funding from DFS to help residents apply for the program. Community organizations, like Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing, can also help renters apply - though funding for tribes is separate from the state's.

Watanabe said Interfaith will help both renters and landlords apply for the assistance, getting as much of that money as they can to the people that need it. But when the program ends in September 2022, the housing problems faced by Wyoming's poor will likely persist.

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