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Lacking Data, Wyoming Underestimates Rental Assistance Need

While the state tracks data on job loss, inflation and rising housing costs, it does not include eviction numbers, leading many officials to underestimate the number of renters who need financial aid.

(TNS) — When it comes to understanding housing insecurity, Wyoming often seems to be flying blind.

In May 2020, after a special session, the state Legislature earmarked $15 million in CARES federal relief money for tenants struggling to pay their rent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the rules set to govern the program were too rigid, and the state struggled to get the word out. The program administered just $1.7 million to renters before returning the rest to the state.

The following spring, Wyoming tried again. This time, under guidance by the federal government, the state had $180 million to work with and more relaxed rules for its distribution.

Fast forward to January 2022, and the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) has already dished out $15.6 million to landlords, renters and utility companies across the state.

Josh Watanabe, executive director of Interfaith in Laramie, said he's used to seeing leaders underestimate the scale of need in Wyoming. (Interfaith operates ERAP for Albany County.)

"When we say we don't have need, we're doing so, I think, from a position of privilege, of judgment," Watanabe said. "Maybe a little bit of lack of compassion for folks."

But, he noted, it's also coming from a position of ignorance.

State-wide statistics about job loss, inflation and rising house prices are enough to raise anxieties about how renters are doing during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Wyoming doesn't keep consistent or detailed data on the heartbeat of housing instability: evictions.

Part of that problem is inconvenient timing. Up until 2018, the Wyoming Supreme Court published statistics on annual eviction filings. But it had to temporarily put that on pause to overhaul the courts' records management system.

The other part is infrastructure. Tracking detailed information about eviction cases requires complex technology. If the courts wanted to expand the amount of data they collected, it would takes a lot of money, effort and time to implement and maintain.

Still, researchers, housing organizations and data companies in other states have found ways to work with courts to get thorough, up-to-date information about evictions out to the public. That data has already proved to be a lifeline for struggling renters during the pandemic — and revealed deeper disparities within their legal systems.

That information could be critical the next time the state works to address its housing problems.

Holes in The Data

Most evictions are a kind of lawsuit. When landlords think they have grounds to evict someone, they're supposed to give tenants written notice to move out. If tenants don't leave, landlords can file a complaint in circuit court.

Tracking evictions means tracking those court cases.

Distilling a never-ending flow of records into a few data points is a lot of work, though. Courts need electronic record systems that can take in, sort and analyze all that information — and trained staff who know how to use them. Most local courts don't have the technology or staffing for that.

So in Wyoming, it's the Supreme Court that handles statistics for them.

The state's circuit and district courts each have integrated records systems that make this possible. Whenever a case is filled at one of the local courts, it goes into one of those systems. Some big-picture data about that filing — like what kind of case it is, and where it was submitted — is then automatically sent to the Supreme Court's database.

Every year, the high court grabs some of that data and publishes it in reports online. Those are the statistics the public can see.

Since 2013, reports for the circuit courts have included the total number of filings for individual types of cases. This is where Wyoming gets its eviction statistics. If you wanted to know, for instance, how many evictions were filed in Douglas' circuit court in 2016, those reports are your only way of finding out.

But Wyoming stopped publishing this information in 2018. The Supreme Court was busy overhauling the circuit courts' record management system, a process that took two-and-a-half-years.

Officials sought to upgrade the system because their old one was getting dated, said Elisa Butler, administrator for the Wyoming Supreme Court. Its developers stopped updating it in 2014, and software that's retired is more vulnerable to security risks.

The new system can also store court documents electronically — a saver of both paper, time and money. Missing out on some court statistics for three years was the unfortunate side-effect of the upgrade.

Why did it take that long? Because switching records systems is a deceptively heavy lift, Butler explained.

"Our staff spent 60 to 80 hours with each court leading up to each implementation and during the go-live itself," she said in an email.

And in the meanwhile — while the circuit courts were straddling the new and old systems — they couldn't collect statistics like they normally do.

The old and new systems use different statistical models, Butler said. They take in the same data, but they categorize it differently.

"Comparing those across the two systems would be incredibly difficult," she said.

The team finished moving all the circuit courts to the new system in November 2020. They'll resume publishing the usual statistics reports next fall, Butler said.

Right now, the Supreme Court is working on getting the district courts on the same records management system. They hope to finish by the end of 2023 or early 2024, Butler said.

The Supreme Court was able to provide the Star-Tribune with an unofficial list of eviction filings for the 2021 fiscal year, which started July 1, 2020.

The data were pulled straight from the high court's warehouse, so they're "fairly accurate", said Butler. But they also haven't been verified, so the court can't be sure they're correct.

Slowdown, But No Stoppage

Without the missing reports from 2019 and 2020, it's difficult to draw anything definite from the statistics.

They do seem to suggest the pandemic-related eviction bans didn't deter landlords from trying to take tenants to court, however. The federal government put a moratorium on evictions into place shortly after the pandemic began because so many people had lost their jobs.

An eviction moratorium was in place for almost all of the 2021 fiscal year: the federal moratorium expired July 31, and then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in with its year-long ban a month later.

Despite this, the number of filings in Wyoming was still about 70 percent what it was in the 2018 fiscal year.

— Cheyenne had 331 eviction cases in 2021, compared to 525 in 2018.

— Casper recorded 301 eviction cases in 2021, down from 429 in 2018.

— Laramie recorded 28 eviction cases in 2021, down from 33 in 2018.

Some cities had more eviction filings than before, the data indicated.

— Gillette recorded 99 eviction filings in 2021, up from 78 in 2018.

— Sweetwater County had 80 eviction filings in 2021, up from 6 in 2018. (From 2015 to 2018, the court reported filings in the single digits. Back in 2013, though, it also reported a high number at 85.)

The federal and CDC bans protected most tenants from eviction for nonpayment of rent, but in most states, landlords could still initiate the eviction process by filing a complaint in court.

Even in Colorado, which implemented much stricter protections for tenants, the number of evictions filed in 2020 were only about half what they were in 2019, Colorado Newsline reported last year.

Once landlords filed a complaint, the burden fell on tenants to prove the protections applied to them.

That could get hairy, said Marilyn Dymond Wagner, executive director of Community Action Partnership in Natrona County. The organization manages the emergency rental program for county, and still had plenty of people coming for help with eviction notices in 2020 and 2021, she said.

Staff at the partnership had to call landlords to explain how the bans worked.

Often, they were frustrated and confused — and understandably so, she said. Before federal rental assistance became widely available, it was landlords who took the hit when tenants fell behind on payments.

"They were saying, 'Well, the bank isn't giving us a moratorium,'" she said. "I mean, we heard that a lot. So it was really challenging."

A Better Approach?

Without information about case outcomes, court stats are only so helpful, said Samantha Daniels, an Emergency Rental Assistance Program attorney at Legal Aid of Wyoming.

"There's a thousand and one outcomes for every filing," Daniels said.

The numbers can tell us how many landlord sought evictions, but they don't show how many evictions actually occurred, in other words. Judges can side with the tenant, of course, and sometimes landlords drop their complaints or settle with renters out of court, to name a few examples.

Many renters are forced out of their homes illegally. Instead of bothering with legal action, landlords can kick tenants out by changing the locks on them, shutting off utilities or refusing to fix maintenance problems that make the unit unlivable.

Sometimes a notice to vacate is enough to get tenants to leave, too. Having an eviction on your record can make it difficult to rent in the future, so some people will move out just to avoid getting taken to court. Some tenants just don't know their rights.

Daniels said she and other attorneys that practice housing law mostly rely on anecdotal evidence to know what's going on in their communities. A lot of the time they're only able to see the problems when they're right in front of their face, she said.

"We just don't see it until it comes through our hotline enough," she said.

More specific data can identify more nuanced disparities in the eviction system — like what courts are more likely to evict or dismiss a case, what properties are notorious for informal evictions and so on.

But producing more nuanced data is easier said than done.

For one, there's still no standard way of documenting informal evictions. Early research suggests it's widespread, however — one 2015 study based in Milwaukee found that they were twice as common as official evictions.

Of the states that do collect granular data on court-ordered evictions, few make those findings easily accessible to the public.

But changing that doesn't have to be shouldered exclusively by the judicial system. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University created the first nationwide eviction database by going through hundreds of thousands of court records. It relied on help from several research organizations, nonprofits and data science companies to make that happen, according to its website.

Since 2020, the lab has also created live eviction trackers for six states and 31 cities.

That research is far from complete. The statistics for many states, including Wyoming, are sparse, inaccurate or completely missing — mostly because they're just that hard to collect.

But it's already having an impact.

One group the Eviction Lab is working with, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, has been collecting eviction statistics since 2017.

In fall 2020, not long after the CDC moratorium was announced, Connecticut judges started moving forward with eviction cases again.

Using real-time court data from the Connecticut Judicial Branch, the organization was able to identify tenants facing court-ordered evictions.The center took that list to legal aid agencies, which were able to contact those tenants and help them understand their rights under the moratorium.In a survey of Connecticut court data conducted in early 2021, the center found 86 percent of landlords had attorneys in eviction court, compared to just 4 percent of landlords. That June, Connecticut passed a bill providing attorneys to low-income residents facing eviction.

Wyoming, too, could benefit from a system that provides more information about what's actually happening on the ground, advocates say. Such information could help inform policymakers, nonprofits, landlords and tenants.

"When you're trying to fill a need in a community, it helps to know what that need is," Daniels said.

(c)2022 Casper Star Tribune, Wyo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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