A “For Rent” sign stands outside of a property in the Saddle Ridge area of Cheyenne. A new, more flexible and wide-reaching program run by the Department of Family Services is aiming to distribute $180 million in its first wave of assistance to renters and landlords. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – State agencies preparing to distribute $200 million in federal funding for rental and utility assistance are requesting public input on how the program should operate.

The Wyoming Departments of Family Services and Workforce Services held a virtual town hall meeting Thursday to provide further details about the program and ask for questions and feedback about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a U.S. Treasury initiative passed through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

The funds are meant to help people struggling to pay for rent or utilities because of COVID-19 – whether because of income loss directly related to the pandemic, or something more indirect, such as an increase in child care costs.

“You may have had reduced hours at your job, and so you didn’t have as much income, and you weren’t able to pay your rent,” DFS Senior Policy Advisor Cari Cuffney said.

“You may also have families that didn’t have any reduction in income, but they had increased costs because they had to pay both for existing child care and then a new child care option, or maybe they had medical bills due to a stay in the hospital because of COVID.”

Along with rental assistance, utility payments for water, sewer, trash, electricity, gas, fuel oil or propane, and up to $50 per month in internet costs could be covered. Telephone and cable costs are not covered under this program.

An applicant’s household income must be at or below 80% of their county’s median income to qualify for assistance from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Those who qualify could receive payments for both past-due and current bills for up to 15 months between March 13, 2020, and March 31, 2022. Assistance would pay past-due rent or bills first, and then could pay for future rent up to three months in advance. The program will also offer case management, legal assistance and other support for people struggling to maintain housing because of the pandemic.

“The primary purpose of this assistance is to keep families stably housed,” Cuffney said. “When families have to go into congregate care settings because they can’t stay in their current housing, that’s an opportunity for the pandemic to spread, and so we want people to be able to stay in their homes, where they’re safest.”

Rental assistance will also help landlords who may have been financially impacted by their tenants’ inability to pay rent, as well as utility companies that have a lot of past-due bills, Cuffney said.

The distribution of the funds relies on the passage of Senate File 118 through the Wyoming Legislature. On Monday, the bill passed out of the Senate on a vote of 30-0. It was introduced and referred to the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

“We do expect that it will pass,” Cuffney said.

Gov. Mark Gordon signed an executive order Feb. 8 putting DFS in charge of administering the money allocated to Wyoming through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The department is partnering with Workforce Services and other state agencies, plus the Wyoming Legislature and community partners.

Cuffney said they expect to begin accepting applications sometime in April. Applications will be available online, but the state is also compiling a list of locations where renters can receive assistance with filling out an application. The state also plans to implement a call center to answer application questions.

Guidelines for needed documentation are still in the works, Cuffney said, though they are likely to include things like a copy of your lease, utility bills or your most recent account statement, documentation of unemployment benefits, your 2020 tax filing, eviction notices or medical bills.

The state will continue to hold meetings with stakeholders and partners even after the program launches, Cuffney said.

Homeowners and commercial properties are not eligible through this program, though additional mortgage assistance was recently passed in the federal American Rescue Plan for COVID-19-related relief. The Homeowner Assistance Fund may provide up to $50 million in mortgage and utility assistance to Wyoming homeowners.

The Wyoming Community Development Authority will host a virtual town hall meeting at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the mortgage assistance program and collect feedback from lenders, mortgage servicers and homeowners.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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