The one-two punch of losing employment and housing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is too devastating for many low-income individuals and families to overcome.
Fortunately, Wyoming lawmakers are making a concerted effort to keep residents safe in their homes without the fear of eviction. I just hope the complexity of the solution — affected landlords will have to apply for federal funds — doesn’t lead to folks slipping through the cracks.
On Friday, the Legislative Management Council initially considered a bill with a provision “for the necessary support of the poor and in order to maintain safe, decent and sanitary housing for persons living in Wyoming.” The committee scheduled a vote on the measure at a virtual meeting that will be shown live on YouTube at 8 a.m. Friday, May 1.
The bill would create a Wyoming Community Development Authority program that would administer federal funds to reimburse landlords if they have experienced a 25% or greater reduction in their rental income. The reduction could occur up to 90 days after Gov. Mark Gordon’s March 13 emergency order, which temporarily closed Wyoming schools, restaurants, bars, gyms, hair salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, among other entities.
Tenants who make less than 200% of the federal poverty level — about $54,000 for a family of four — wouldn’t have to pay rent if their landlord receives the reimbursement. To qualify for the program, at least one member of a household must have either lost hourly pay, been laid off or terminated from their employment or had work hours reduced as a result of COVID-19.
Amy Spieker, who has led a campaign calling for an eviction moratorium during the pandemic, likes most of what she’s learned so far about the proposal.
“It’s exciting, because it puts the onus [to apply] on the landlords, not the tenants, so they don’t have to negotiate or take that on themselves,” said Spieker, director of community health and analysis at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.
She’s absolutely right — no one who has lost their income wants to fill out more paperwork on top of what is required for unemployment benefits.
Spieker recognizes that many people were already struggling to pay for rent, food, utilities, healthcare and other bills before the COVID-19 outbreak. They shouldn’t have to choose between providing essentials for their families and keeping a roof over their heads.
Spieker outlined the need for a moratorium on evictions in the Equality State in a letter to Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines. It was co-signed by 20 nonprofit organizations.
Relying on social services organizations to keep people safely in their homes, Spieker noted, “would drain their limited resources very quickly.” She reasons there must be a better way and thinks that the Legislative Management Council’s bill might provide the best solutions.
Still, she has valid concerns that she hopes the council addresses before it passes the bill and moves it on for consideration by the entire Legislature at next month’s one-day special session.
“I do wonder what happens if a landlord decides that they don’t want to apply for the funding for whatever reason — that it might be easier to just go through with an eviction or maybe they don’t want to take federal funds,” Spieker said. “I’m not sure what protections there are for individuals who have a landlord that doesn’t want to go through that process.”
Wyoming is an extremely conservative state with many officials and residents who can’t stomach the idea of accepting federal-government support, even though overall the state receives more federal funds than it pays in taxes. I can envision some “anti-fed” landlords deciding not to apply for the program. They might also just want to remove a tenant they view as troublesome and take this convenient opportunity to do so.
How much federal funding will be available for the WCDA-administered program is also up in the air. The council’s draft bill pegged the figure at $25 million, but it was amended to only $10 million at the suggestion of Rep. Mark Greear (R-Worland).
I don’t get easily surprised anymore by what Wyoming lawmakers do, but the speed at which the council narrowly whacked $15 million out of the bill shocked me. Hardly any time was given to debate the pros and cons of the move.
Greear said if not many landlords apply, any money the state allocates for the new program would revert to the federal government. But Spieker said with the 200% of the federal poverty level requirement, many tenants would be eligible and the demand for federal reimbursements to landlords would be high.
“It definitely seems like at $10 million, that money could go pretty quickly,” she said.
Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) said as long as some amount is in the bill, the governor could use his authority to distribute COVID-19 relief funds from a separate bill to “back-fill” the program with additional monies. I hope he’s right, but I’d like to see the Legislature put it in writing.
At least 34 states have issued moratoria on evictions, either through gubernatorial executive actions or orders issued by state supreme courts. Meanwhile, as part of the CARES Act, Congress issued a 120-day moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing or from properties with a federally backed mortgage loan.
Full disclosure: I work for Better Wyoming, a progressive organizing group that has called on the governor to issue an executive order placing a statewide moratorium on evictions. I still think it should happen. Gordon expressed reluctance to take that direct action, but his administration developed the proposed WCDA program and turned the issue over to the Legislature.
In the meantime, there is a kind of de facto eviction moratorium, with the state’s judicial branch largely having stopped hearing such civil cases. But that action isn’t universal. The governor could tell the attorney general to order sheriffs’ departments throughout the state to not enforce any evictions.
One of the primary fears of eviction moratorium advocates is that it might only postpone the pain. If tenants ultimately can’t pay the full amount of their back rent, they would be forced out of their homes anyway.
The proposed WCDA program, which is modeled after an existing one in New York, has one big advantage: It would give tenants up to three full months of rent payment relief that they wouldn’t have to pay back to landlords. The program could also be extended for as long as the governor thinks it’s necessary.
Spieker voiced concern about another issue that should be clarified by the council next Friday. What constitutes a COVID-19-related reason for tenants to be eligible should be better defined, she said.
“What if having your kids at home from school prevents you from continuing to work, even if your job returns?” she asked. Spieker said that is covered in pandemic-related changes to unemployment benefits.
“Is that going to be true in this scenario as well?” she said.
Obviously no one wants to see people who have been hurt by the coronavirus outbreak subjected to further stress, and I’m heartened that Gordon’s administration, the Legislature and courts not only have the issue on their radar, but they’ve made it a top priority.
The Legislature will have a full plate during the forthcoming special session. Cramming a host of appropriations into two bills during a single day is rife for potential problems, which is why it’s important for the public to convey to lawmakers any pitfalls they may see beforehand. For the mental and fiscal health of many Wyoming landlords and their low-income renters, the bill must be as finely tuned as possible.