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EXPLAINER: Will Wyoming do enough to limit evictions?

July 15, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2020, file photo, housing activists erect a sign in Swampscott, Mass. A federal freeze on most evictions is set to expire soon. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

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As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Wyoming:

WHAT’S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN WYOMING?

Wyoming hasn’t put a moratorium on evictions. But landlords who participate in the state Emergency Rental Assistance Program agree not to pursue eviction proceedings amid applications for assistance, said the program’s contract spokeswoman, Rachel Girt. The federally funded program run by the Wyoming Department of Family Services, with assistance from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, helps people affected by the coronavirus pandemic to cover their rent and pay utilities. The program also helps landlords cover expenses.

WHAT’S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

As of January, Wyoming had an estimated 23,515 households eligible for help with rental arrears totaling around $40 million.

The federal government has given Wyoming $200 million, the amount allocated to the least-populated states, for such assistance. Of that, $180 million is available for direct rent, utility and internet assistance, and services to help prevent people from becoming homeless. The remaining $20 million may cover administrative costs and helping people apply for aid.

As of June 15, 3,200 tenants had opened applications seeking $6.8M in rent and utility assistance. Of those, tenants had completed and submitted 1,300 applications requesting $3.9 million. The state approved 211 applications, or 16% of those submitted, and paid $590,000 in assistance. Fewer than half a percent of applications were denied, Girt said.

HOW ARE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

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The Wyoming Department of Family Services has been providing information about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to Wyoming courts. The department also has provided $1 million to Equal Justice Wyoming for legal services to eligible households facing eviction or other housing instability, Girt said. While many evictions aren’t going ahead while landlords get help covering costs, that could change once the eviction moratorium ends.

HOW AFFORDABLE IS HOUSING IN WYOMING’S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Outside pricey Jackson Hole, rental housing in Wyoming is relatively affordable: About $700 a month for a two-bedroom unit as of the second quarter of 2020. That’s a fraction of typical rents in major U.S. metro areas.

Prices range from about $500 in Big Horn County to over $900 in Laramie County, where prices surged 9% from 2019 to 2020. As with home prices, rental rates in Teton County are the Wyoming outlier at almost $2,300 a month.

Average Wyoming rent was up about 3% from 2019 to 2020, with the steepest increase (26%) in the Afton area and biggest decrease (13%) just across the Wyoming Range in Sublette County, according to the state Economic Analysis Division.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

This remains to be seen. Wyoming has about 600 homeless people, one the smallest homeless populations of any state, and with 560,000 people is the least populated state. Almost 1 in 4 renters in the state surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau reported they expect eviction in the next two months. Many of the state’s homeless come from elsewhere.

The COMEA homeless shelter in Cheyenne served over 500 people in 2020. Especially in summertime, homeless people arrive in Cheyenne from elsewhere by highway and rail. The shelter gets busy but should remain able to help any influx of people, COMEA assistant director Camron Karajanis said.