By Mary Steurer
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER —In an attempt to stretch its remaining federal dollars, the Department of Family Services will stop accepting new applications for Wyoming’s pandemic rental relief program on Nov. 10.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) was created by Congress to help tenants struggling to keep up with rent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program launched in Wyoming under the Department of Family Services in the spring of 2021.
Demand for rental relief in Wyoming has only increased since its debut. As of early September, the program was receiving roughly 200 applications a day.
While the money doesn’t expire until 2025, current spending patterns — coupled with an ongoing reallocation of ERAP dollars on the federal level — indicate the program could dry up as early as February or March.
With that in mind, the Department of Family Services has decided to start scaling down its services.
“We don’t want to crash the plane,” Korin Schmidt, director of the Department of Family Services, said. “What we would rather do is start to slowly land it.”
To make the most of the remaining money it has, the agency will prioritize current clients of the program, Schmidt said. The decision to stop accepting new applications won’t affect ERAP extensions. (Though ERAP provides up to 18 months of relief, the department can only approve tenants for three months at a time, meaning clients must reapply for extensions every few months.)
The agency will also be suspending its “letter-of-intent” program, which was introduced last year as a way to pre-approve the homeless for the program.
Applicants who couldn’t otherwise afford rent and a deposit could show prospective landlords letters from the state showing they qualified for rental assistance.
Since its launch, the relief program has been funded by two separate federal packages. Wyoming officially transitioned to the second package of funding in January.
Though the second originally earmarked $152 million for Wyoming, the state may only get about $106 million of that.
Federal guidelines make it so that states can only get their rental relief funding piecemeal. That’s because the federal government wasn’t sure what the level of need for rental assistance would be in each state. It wanted the ability to adjust funding allocations over time. So each state has to meet certain spending benchmarks in order to unlock its full allocation.
So far, Wyoming has only unlocked about 70% of its funding.
“We’re required to spend money to get more money,” Schmidt said. “And then we’re required to spend money to keep our money.”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury is currently deciding how to reallocate states’ remaining ERAP money based on each state’s spending patterns.
States that don’t appear to be heavy spenders will likely have some of their funds redistributed. And, despite the high demand from residents, Wyoming may not appear to be spending its ERAP money fast enough to prove to the federal government that it should keep the funds, Schmidt said.
That’s why the Department of Family Services isn’t sure it can count on its remaining $45.6 million — and why Wyoming’s rental relief might run out as early as next spring.
And the agency won’t know what the Treasury’s plans are until January or February, Schmidt said.
The changes to ERAP aren’t necessarily permanent. Once the agency knows more about its funding situation, it’ll reevaluate, Schmidt said.
The agency anticipates another spike in applicants as the Nov. 10 deadline approaches. That’s likely to slow down the time it takes for the state to get assistance out.
As of Oct. 15, the Department of Family Services had given out a total of $62 million in rental assistance. Of that, $49 million has gone to landlords, $9.7 million to renters, $3.6 million to utilities companies and another $21,000 to pay for moving costs.