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Nonprofits call for a moratorium on evictions

CASPER — As the executive director of homelessness advocacy group Family Promise of Cheyenne, Lori Kempter knew all too well how vulnerable people can be, even in the days before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Running the sole homeless shelter for families in the state’s capital, Kempter has spent her career helping to break the cycle of instability for many families stuck in homelessness, helping them secure steady employment and safe housing at critical points in their lives.

Since the coronavirus all but shut down the state’s economy, putting a record number of people out of work, things have gotten worse, disrupting the lives of many of the people Kempter worked so hard to help.

“We’ve seen a huge impact, not just for the people in our shelter, but for the people who have graduated out and into their own housing and are now losing their jobs,” she said.

Like many lower-income residents of Wyoming, Kempter’s clients often live paycheck to paycheck with little money in savings to help them ride out tougher times.

Without those paychecks — and with federal unemployment benefits not set to begin deployment until the week of April 27 — many of these individuals are now extremely susceptible to losing their homes, with few options to replace their income as the economy remains shut down.

Recognizing this need, a growing coalition of nonprofit organizations around Wyoming are calling on state government to find a means of suspending rent and mortgage payments as thousands of Wyomingites face unemployment and economic hardship as a result of COVID-19.

Amy Spieker, director of community health and analysis at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, argues that a temporary suspension of mortgage payments would give cost-burdened Wyomingites time to receive aid from the federal government while averting additional demand on the state’s social services and nonprofits that would most likely need to step up to meet the need.

“There are many renters out there that were barely holding on to their place of living before the outbreak,” Spieker wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “With the filings for unemployment going as high as 800 percent above the normal, we can imagine that many people are going to be making difficult choices this month and the months to come. Or there might not be a choice to make if there is no money to be spent.”

It was the same case she made in a letter to Gov. Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines — who is leading the state’s economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak — that was co-signed by 20 nonprofit organizations from around the state.

The list included housing and homelessness advocacy organizations as well as groups like the Wyoming Hospital Association and the Cheyenne Landlord Association, which has recently begun working with the Small Business Administration to provide loans for landlords unable to pay their mortgages.

While some have questioned the logistics of a mortgage or rent suspension, those in favor of the proposal believe such a proposal is necessary to avoid greater implications on the state’s already overburdened social safety net.

Even before the crisis, housing insecurity was a common problem across the state, Kempter said, particularly after the collapse of industries like coal and the decline of others like oil and gas have forced numerous families into lower-paying and more vulnerable careers.

And since coronavirus effectively shut down the economy, those jobs are becoming increasingly scarce.

One of Kempter’s clients initially refused to apply for unemployment insurance out of pride, finally relenting after being unable to get a job that offered her hours more than twice a week.

Another client was in trade school to become a pipe fitter, was laid off from her job and got a job in the service industry, allowing her to pay off her debts and support her children.

Later, she lost that job as well and now faces a return to the shelter.

“Now she’s at the end of her savings,” Kempter said. “It’s devastating to see someone who has worked so hard over the last nine months to get her family in a position to be stable and self-sufficient, to not want to ask anyone for help, to lose everything over the course of a few days.”

“If she’s to lose her housing because she’s evicted, she’ll have nowhere else to go, and she’ll end up back in the shelter,” she added.

Concerns around evictions have even been exhibited by the executive branch itself.

As early as late March, Gordon urged landlords to “exercise maximum flexibility” with their tenants in an effort to avoid coronavirus-related evictions.

Specific details on what a state-level response could look like, however, were still elusive as of late last week, when Gordon told reporters in his regular news conference that his administration was currently working on a solution to help keep the newly unemployed or cost-burdened in their homes.

“It’s very much on my mind,” Gordon said. “I’ve been working with the WCDA — the Wyoming Community Development Authority — to see if there are any ways we can address those issues.”

“We are looking at every avenue we have to relieve that pressure,” he added, noting the amount of correspondence he has received from those who have been put out of work. “I feel horribly about that.”

While the governor’s business task force has been focused on the issue — looking at means of working with banks to stall foreclosures and examining the latitude he has to enact an executive order to prevent those evictions — a spokesperson for the governor said Monday that such a plan was not yet ready for prime time, though one was very much in the works.

“This is still a work in progress, but the matter is still under review,” they wrote.

In an interview Tuesday, Racines said that the administration is currently advising mortgage holders to work with their lenders and, in the interim, advising tenants to try to work with landlords.

“Every bank is offering some sort of payment forbearance or relief,” she said. “So if you’re a landlord and your tenant asks for a month or two to figure things out, we would encourage (the landlord) to give their bank a call if they have to have that rent payment to make their mortgage payment.”

She added that while the state is currently unsure of the number of evictions could might have happened as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, she noted that the state’s judicial branch has largely stopped hearing civil cases — effectively making evictions unenforceable — and that the biggest issue for renters could potentially be an inability to pay back rent after they regain unemployment.

“Having your rent delayed is good, and not being evicted is good, but if you have zero confidence you’ll be able to pay back rent once this is over, staying the eviction doesn’t necessarily help your problem,” she said.

The letter is part of a growing movement around the state to enact reforms seen in other states around the country to keep vulnerable residents in their homes.

In early April, the progressive organizing group Better Wyoming became one of the first to formally call for a moratorium, arguing evicted tenants would have little recourse to stay in their homes if they’d lost their jobs.

As of Monday afternoon, a number of other groups — like Teton County-based Shelter JH — were reportedly working on their own response.

The concept of temporarily pausing evictions and foreclosures is not outside of the mainstream, with governors in roughly half of the country issuing some form of moratorium for the duration of the public health crisis.

Meanwhile the federal government has suspended evictions in housing financed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the month of April, while numerous national groups have made their own appeals to landlords and financial institutions to show leniency to renters and homeowners economically burdened by the crisis.

In Wyoming, hundreds — if not thousands — of residents could potentially face eviction or foreclosure due to an inability to make payments as a result of COVID-19.

According to data from the American Communities Survey compiled by Spieker, nearly 41 percent of the state’s renters were paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, a red line for financial hardship that has increased steadily in the years since the Great Recession.

With such a large propensity of individuals susceptible to housing insecurity across Wyoming, Spieker says some form of moratorium is a necessary intervention for many nonprofits that are already challenged by the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.

Though not a sustainable solution, Spieker acknowledged, a moratorium could be a needed one.

If things get too bad, Spieker said the state’s nonprofit sector risks becoming overburdened by new demand well before unemployment benefits have had time to begin pouring into the state’s economy.

“The signers of this letter are not naive,” she said. “We know that this does not solve all the problems, especially in the long term. What happens when the rent comes due in 90 days or 120 days? How can we help landlords apply for federal funding to protect against lost income if renters can’t pay? What happens to our smaller banks if mortgages aren’t paid? The goal of this action is to keep people housed to comply with public health needs and to buy us time as a state and communities to figure out answers to these other questions.”

“If we don’t act now,” she added, “we see impacts sooner on individuals who are most vulnerable and pressure on social service agencies.”