A new state program seeks to keep Wyoming residents in their homes, even as many struggle to make rent or mortgage payments.
The Wyoming Emergency Housing Assistance Program was one of several measures passed by the state legislature to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19.
The program will pay part of a resident's rent or mortgage payment if that resident was hurt financially by the pandemic.
"We'll provide up to $2000 per month of assistance to the renters or homeowners to help assist in making those payments," said Scott Hoversland, executive director of the Wyoming Community Development Authority, an organization created by the state in the seventies to finance affordable housing.
The development authority is now tasked with disbursing the payments to landlords and loan servicers.
The program is backed by $15 million allocated from the $1.25 billion in federal funding Wyoming received from the CARES Act.
"What we're trying to do is really cover everybody in Wyoming," Hoversland said. "WCDA programs are generally for low and moderate income but the pandemic has affected everybody."
The program won't pay all of your rent - or all of your mortgage payment. Based on your income and housing bill, the exact payment will vary, but it could pay a significant chunk of that housing bill from now until the program is ended, or the end of the calendar year, whichever comes first.
Hoversland said recipients must show that the pandemic caused a loss of income.
"You know, either a reduction of income, loss of job, having to stay home to care for an underage dependent because they don't have childcare, or they themselves contracted COVID-19," he said. "If they can demonstrate that then they qualify for that.
As the state started locking down in mid-March of this year, life in Wyoming changed dramatically. Although Wyoming was one of the few states not to issue a shelter-in-place order, Gov. Mark Gordon did issue other orders, closing public spaces and banning gatherings of 10 or more people.
As the state began social distancing, a record number of Wyomingites filed for unemployment, while others found their hours cut or their pay reduced. It became clear that many, especially low income workers, were going to find it difficult to pay rent in the coming months.
There was talk of a general rent strike, while others began seriously discussing a ban on evictions - a measure put in place by more than 20 other states.
Nate Martin of the group Better Wyoming wrote an op-ed calling on the governor to do just this. He said the new state program is a step in the right direction.
"Is it a perfect solution? Probably not," Martin said. "But does a perfect solution exist for anything in this unprecedented crazy situation that we're living through? Again, probably not."
He added he'll be interested to see how successful the program is.
"There's obviously more work to be done in terms of making sure people are okay and have their basic necessities covered during this crisis," Martin said. "But at this point, I don't know exactly what prescription to make."
The program is not the end-all-be-all of rental assistance, however, and Martin said there will still be some people who lose their homes regardless.
"And in the midst of an unprecedented budget shortfall that the state is experiencing, it's unclear how much federal money is going to keep coming down the pipeline," he said. "So, eventually the faucet's going to run dry and the problems are probably going to remain."
Rep. Mike Yin of Teton County voted in favor of the new program. Yin has long taken an interest in housing, coming from the county with the highest income inequality and chronic housing problems.
"We want to make sure that people stay in their homes and that people stay in Wyoming," Yin said. "That's the goal and if it does look like it's well used and we'll need to refund it, that's something the legislature will have to look at, come next special section if we have one."
So far, only a few residents have applied for the assistance - just more than 100 - and less than 20 have received that assistance.
Hoversland said the total payments awarded so far come to about $26,000 - far short of the allocated 15 million.
"We've had another 31 that have been declined," he said. "A lot of that has to do with it was for prior months and they had made their payment and were asking for reimbursement. We can't reimburse them with this program if they're not short that payment. It's not paying for back months that were paid. It's just those that they currently can't make."
But Hoversland added he expects the program to pick up steam as tenants and homeowners start staring down the barrel of rental or mortgage payments for July. Unemployment bonuses related to the coronavirus are also set to expire at the end of July, meaning the assistance program could also gain more applicants going into August.
"But we may see it reduce too, if everybody starts gradually getting back to work," Hoversland said.
State residents can apply for rent or mortgage payment assistance on the development authority's website.
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