The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), which was started at the end of April, has since provided over $15.6 million to 6,159 Wyoming households, out of the $180 million approved for the program.

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The ERAP was meant to assist renters who are struggling to pay rent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and uses federal funding to pay for the program.

According to the Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS), 9,878 applications have been submitted as of Jan. 6, meaning 62% of submitted applications have been accepted, while 1,708 applications have been rejected or withdrawn.

Kristie Arneson, senior legal and policy analyst for DFS, said that while the program got off to a slow start, they have since been successful in increasing the speed at which they approve applications.

Renters in Natrona County have received the most of any county in the state at $3,309,213, with 1,284 applications paid, out of 1,713 applications submitted, according to the DFS website.

Samantha Daniels, ERAP attorney for Legal Aid of Wyoming, along with two other attorneys, was hired to help assist people in signing up for ERAP along with other issues people have had with housing.

Daniels said the program is helpful because having your rent paid allows people who are behind on other bills a chance to catch up.

"Everybody's affected," Daniels said. "And in what way, is it credit cards, is it fall behind on utilities. I think a lot of people are gonna say credit cards and are gonna say things like that, credit cards and payday loans. This is a way to catch up on all that. Your rent gets paid so now you can afford to pay your credit card."

Recently the program has also begun offering letters of intent, which allows people without housing to get a letter from DFS stating that they have rent paid for three months, which can then be given to landlords in lieu of rent.

However, Daniels said that the new initiative has also run into another issue, namely that there isn't enough housing available.

"I'd say we're definitely in an unprecedented housing situation here," Daniels said. "Most of my clients can't find their rental. I think I've heard in Casper there's a little bit of a shortage, but in Cheyanne, there are almost no apartments available...A lot of my clients are struggling to find a place in general...much less if they have an eviction on their record, then what."

One of the issues that have arisen with landlords is that ERAP will cap late fees at 10%, but sometimes landlords will have charged more than that amount.

Daniels said there are some situations where renters owe more than 10% in late fees, but because of how ERAP works, landlords only get 10%.

"Some landlords charge a $10 a day late fee, I've seen that a few times," Daniels said "$10 a day is $300 a month, even if rent is $1,000 or $1,500, that's not 10%, that's $300, and that's a lot, and that adds up quickly, especially when you're already behind on rent. It usually starts out with $50 for the first time, then $10 a day. It's usually exorbitant...Somebody can put in their application that they owe $500 in late fees for the month of December. But if rent is $1,000, they get $100."

Most of the funding for ERAP has gone to landlords, $12.2 million out of the $15.6 million distributed, which Daniels said shows that landlords more often than not accept the ERAP conditions.

If they don't, ERAP money goes directly to renters.

While the ERAP is funded until at least 2025, Daniels said she believes that the funding for Legal Aid of Wyoming will expire at the end of 2022.

The DFS is also attempting to administer a Homeowners Assistance Fund, which is using $50 million in federal funding to provide similar help to homeowners impacted by COVID-19, but since announcing a pilot program in August, there have been no updates on when the program will launch.

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