Eviction Ban? Rent Strike? What To Do When Rent Comes Due

Apr 10, 2020

Countless businesses across the state have had to shut down temporarily due to COVID-19. That's not good, particularly for renters in Wyoming who live paycheck to paycheck.

Nate Martin is with Better Wyoming. It's a group that's now vouching for renters who may not have the ability to afford their rent, and are now worried about evictions.

"People are losing their jobs in vast, vast numbers," he said. "And when people lose their jobs, they're not going to have the money to pay rent, or they have to choose between buying food and paying rent. It gets down to making decisions between these basic necessities."

To make matters worse, about a quarter of renters are considered "extremely low income" according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Earlier this month, Martin called on Gov. Mark Gordon to ban evictions for the time being. More than 20 states have enacted similar measures in response to the current crisis. Some of those bans work through the court system, others by legislative acts. Martin's suggestion would see the governor instructing sheriffs to stop enforcing eviction orders.

"This is really sort of a short-term, stop-gap solution, saying right now people shouldn't be kicked out on the streets and forced to live in their cars," he said.

Teton County Representative Mike Yin is skeptical of an eviction ban, since landlords could come knocking the day after it's lifted.

"I think the biggest way to make sure people don't get kicked out on the street is to make sure that people can still maintain an income," he said.

Yin said that could mean grants to keep businesses running, loans to keep employees on the payroll, or bolstering unemployment insurance. But one thing, Yin said, is clear.

"I think, ultimately, the government does need to play a role to make sure that we can get out of this crisis in a way that does the least amount of harm," he said.

At the state level, Gov. Gordon said he's been in discussions about what to do for renters. He has yet to ban evictions, but said at a recent press conference he's looking into what to do on this front. He added that residents of Wyoming should "stay tuned."

"We are looking at every avenue we have to relieve that pressure," Gordon said. "I have mail, unhappily, more often than I would like, that says, 'By closing the business I work at, you've now put me out on the street. Thanks, governor, that's really great.' And I feel horribly about that."

Federally, Congress recently made a move that could help in prohibiting evictions from certain housing units. It would protect renters in units with federally-backed mortgages, though it's unclear how many Wyoming renters would qualify. That protection will also rely on how local circuit courts interpret the move.

"With regard to the circuit courts, each of the judges has their own discretion to run their courts in the manner that they see fit," said Elisa Butler, general counsel at the state's administrative office of the courts. "So, it's really based on how the courts interpret the language of the law themselves."

That independence within the court system means a resident of Park County might be subject to a different interpretation of the law than a resident in, say, Natrona County.

Of course, landlords and tenants could negotiate their own terms - for instance, work out a way to put off or lower rent. But for many tenants, Nate Martin said, it might not be a matter of having a nice or reasonable landlord.

"I think it's true that a lot of landlords in Wyoming will do the right thing," he said.

However, a lot of rentals are not local but owned by large, impersonal companies.

"And when something pops up on a spreadsheet on somebody's computer, maybe a few states away, saying this person hasn't paid the rent, the eviction process starts rolling," Martin said. "And it's not a question of someone doing the right thing. It's a question of a bureaucratic corporate protocol."

There are other, more drastic, measures available to rental tenants, according to a petition being circulated by some socialist groups in the state.

The petition calls for a suspension of rent and mortgage payments and threatens a rent strike if that suspension is not granted. A rent strike would involve tenants organizing and refusing to hand over rent.

Alan Romero, who teaches law at the University of Wyoming, said that would be a good way to put pressure on landlords, though it would open up the tenants who participate to judgement in court.

The rent strike petition has picked up steam across Wyoming with more than 7000 signatures. But for now, all options - from a rent strike to a move from the governor to more federal help - remain on the table.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Jeff Victor, at jvictor@uwyo.edu.