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Wyoming's Rental Assistance Program Has Paid $4.7 Million To Renters

Eviction Notice form with house keys
MGN Online

Wyoming's Emergency Rental Assistance Program has awarded $4.7 million to more than 1,400 households. That money comes from a large pool of funding from the federal government. Recently, Wyoming and other small states were criticized for spending only a fraction of their funding so far. But Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor spoke with Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt who said the program is accelerating after a rocky start. But that rocky start, Schmidt said, was necessary to get out as much assistance as possible to all the people who needed it.

A professional headshot of Korin Schmidt
Wyoming Department of Family Services
Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt

Korin Schmidt: In general now, I think it's going pretty smoothly. You know, the first couple of months were pretty tough. We made a policy decision early on to stand up the program as quickly as we could … and essentially to use the phrase: We built the plane while we were flying it.

It was a brand new program, not like anything that we have really stood up before and managed before. The Department of Family Services doesn't interact with landlords and tenants. And so understanding the relationship between landlords and tenants - and then also, what tenants are equipped to provide - has been a learning curve.

Certainly, our goal was to start taking applications as soon as possible, but it was also through those applications that we really had to learn what the problems were going to be. And at that time, every problem was new.

For example, what would happen if a tenant provided the name of a landlord that didn't match what was already in the state payment system? Because if they didn't match, then we couldn't necessarily pay.

So I think we've worked through the lion's share of those initial big problems. Certainly, we're still encountering individual issues, but overall, if clients are submitting applications with all of the right information, we're processing them in less than 30 days. So that was our goal, that's the standard for a lot of our benefit programs and for the most part, we've hit that.

Jeff Victor: So the program has already given out more than twice as much as the CARES-backed program last year that I know was not run out of your office, but it's also a small part of the $180 million that's available. So, how are you thinking about this $4.7 million figure? Is that where you expected to be right now? Should that be higher? How are you thinking about where you are right now?

KS: That's a good question and we really didn't have great data walking into this project to give us an understanding of what the definitive need is.

So around 44,000 households total in Wyoming, we determined, could be eligible, just based on income. But there's a few other requirements. So it's not fair to assume that every one of those households needed assistance, right? We don't know, and we didn't know, if those households were able to continue paying or not continue paying.

And then, was the financial hardship that they experienced as a result of COVID-19? And that's been a tricky spot for us, and I think for clients - that they may have financial difficulties, but if they can't tie that back to a COVID-related reason, then they're not eligible for the program.

So you take the 44,000 people, and you start to apply those filters and we're not quite sure what we were going to have.

So the data has been tricky, and it's been tricky for all the states, not just ours. And we knew from the beginning that the $200 million that we were allocated was far going to exceed the need we have, just based on sheer numbers.

I think getting out $4.7 million in the course of three and half months is a pretty tremendous feat, especially in Wyoming, considering the obstacles that we have just with demographics and outreach.

JV: So last week, a representative from South Carolina singled out Wyoming and a few other states for having spent the smallest percentage of their allocated funds. I know the governor's office responded that that calculation isn't really fair. But I wanted to hear your response to Rep. James Clyburn's criticism.

KS: We were a little surprised about being called out in that way, without really fully understanding the demographics of Wyoming.

And looking at the Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which Rep. Clyburn chairs, you'll see that there's not a lot of representation of the western states. And I do think we're unique in the way that we approach these types of programs, and how we're able to implement them.

First and foremost, we were allocated $200 million without anybody asking us what we needed. Congress made an assumption that renters needed all this money. And in fact, gave us a lot of money, but in Wyoming, 70 percent of our households own, or have mortgages.

What we're hoping is that Congress will recognize that our problem may not be with just getting renters assistance or helping landlords, but it's also about how much housing we have available.

And it is a little frustrating to have all this money and not be able to really apply it where we need it most.

What the letter did was kind of trivialise Wyoming's actual needs - in contrast to maybe what other major metropolitan areas need - and then called us out. It was a poor representation of the program. And I think in spite of that, we're confident we're going to continue to be strong and continue to work out the problems as we come across them.

JV: And finally, I've heard nationally that one problem has been landlords refusing payments. I know that here in Wyoming, you will pay the tenant directly if the landlord refuses, but I still wanted to know how much has that happened in Wyoming? How much or how frequently have the landlords been refusing payments?

KS: Well, I don't have hard data on the number of times landlords have refused payments and you're right, we have a system in place now. If the landlord refuses or rejects or sends back payment, then we turn around and pay the tenant. It has happened. We have received checks returned to us uncashed because the landlord has decided not to cash the check, but in terms of overall percentage of the problem, anecdotally, it's not high, but certainly there are situations we've encountered where landlords have chosen not to participate.

JV: Well, Director Schmidt, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

KS: Absolutely.

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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