Gordon Defends Wyoming's Rental Assistance Program, Asks Congress To Adjust Who Qualifies
Gov. Mark Gordon responded to criticisms of Wyoming's emergency rental assistance program, arguing in a letter that the Equality State is actually leading the way, and that Congress could do more to help struggling homeowners, renters and the homeless.
Gordon wrote in a letter to Congress's coronavirus committee that since receiving legislative approval to administer the program in April, the Department of Family Services has awarded almost $5 million to Wyoming renters "efficiently, effectively, and equitably."
"Wyoming's August payments were thirty percent higher than those of July and double those issued in June," Gordon wrote. "We anticipate growth to continue at an aggressive rate."
Late last month, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn criticized Wyoming's emergency rental assistance program. Clyburn, who chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, wrote letters to Gov. Gordon and four other governors, calling on each to do more and asking about program specifics.
The five states singled out by Clyburn — Wyoming, Alabama, Arkansas and the Dakotas — have awarded the smallest percentage of their allocated funds.
But ranking states by that percentage does not paint an accurate picture, the governor argued. States were allocated money roughly proportionately with their populations — except for more than a dozen of the least populated states, which all received the base amount of $200 million.
That means there are more than a dozen jurisdictions with more renters to award, but the same amount of money to dole out. So Wyoming could give out more money per-capita, but have spent a lower percentage of their $200 million than a bigger state with the same pool of money.
In fact, the governor argued, Wyoming's program is performing admirably.
"The Department has issued $8.5 million to local non-profit organizations, tenants, and landlords in just four months, a feat that is unheard of within Wyoming’s social safety net," he wrote. "For local context, this is higher than annual benefits payments from longstanding federal programs administered by the State of Wyoming, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Low Income Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program."
The $8.5 million figure includes the nearly $5 million awarded in rent and utility payments — as well as administrative costs, such as money going to community-based organizations that connect renters in need with the program.
In his letter and a related press conference, Clyburn recommended that Wyoming and the other states conduct outreach to landlords and tenants, pay renters directly when landlords refuse to cooperate, work with applicants to fill out incomplete applications, and allow self-attestation of COVID-related financial hardship (in lieu of documentation).
Gordon wrote Wyoming has been doing all of this.
"Wyoming's success is due to its early implementation of the same best practices that the subcommittee now asks our program to consider," he wrote. "In fact, Wyoming has been a leader in ERA implementation nationally, including in the development of these same best practices."
But Gordon added that the committee could make adjustments to the program that would help jurisdictions like Wyoming to increase assistance payments. Generally, the governor's recommendations involved loosening restrictions on who qualifies for assistance and what assistance funds can be used for.
For example, Gordon suggested raising the income eligibility threshold from 80 percent of an area's median income to 100 percent. He further suggested eliminating all other requirements.
"Hinge household eligibility on income-requirements alone," the governor wrote. "All households have been impacted by COVID and any household falling under the statutory income threshold would benefit from financial support to retain housing stability."
Gordon said the need of Wyoming renters will never justify the amount currently allocated. But affordable housing is sorely needed in many Wyoming communities — and funding its construction could alleviate some homelessness, Gordon wrote.
"Wyoming desperately needs this funding to cure severe shortages in affordable housing across the state," he wrote. "We also need this funding to supplement the relatively low allocation provided to Wyoming in mortgage assistance, as the majority of Wyoming households — 70% — are owner-occupied."
Nationwide, programs funded by Congress's Emergency Rental Assistance Program are falling far short of expectations.
"Only $4.9 billion of over $46 billion allocated has gone out to American renters in need," Gordon wrote. "Frankly, I find it unfair that the Subcommittee has pinned this nationwide problem on Wyoming, a state with fewer residents than many cities."