A records management system upgrade that paused eviction data collection may have contributed to ignorance about the scope of the state's housing problems.
Like many states, Wyoming had trouble getting the word out about rental assistance that was made available through the CARES Act.
In 2020, the legislature set aside $15 million to help tenants pay their rent, but only $1.7 million was distributed before the program returned the rest of the money to the state. In 2021, the state had $180 million to distribute thanks to federal guidance, and by January 2022 distributed just $15.6 million to tenants, landlords and utility companies.
One reason for the slow start may have been a lack of data on evictions, the Caspar Star-Tribune reported.
Josh Watanabe, executive director of Interfaith in Laramie, told the paper that perceptions about the need for federal assistance may have come partly from "a lack of compassion," but also from ignorance about the scope of housing issues.
According to the paper, a lack of up-to-date data may have led to misinterpretations about the state's need for rental assistance.
Up until 2018, annual eviction filings statistics were published by the Wyoming Supreme Court, which was forced to pause compilation for two and a half years as it upgraded the circuit courts' records management system. During the transition, the normal statistics were not collected and compiled.
The Supreme Court hopes to get the district courts on the same records management system by the end of 2023 or early 2024, Elisa Butler, administrator for the Wyoming Supreme Court, told the paper.
Even if accurate numbers had been available on eviction filings, that data doesn't tell the whole story.
The Supreme Court's statistics were based on the complaints filed by landlords in circuit court. Additionally, the statistics do not include the number of tenants who lost their housing because they voluntarily left to avoid having an eviction on their record or who were kicked out by landlords who changed the locks or refused to make essential repairs.
Attorneys practicing housing law often rely on anecdotal evidence to understand housing problems in a community because more detailed eviction data is unavailable. In Wyoming, there is no standard way of documenting informal evictions.
The Eviction Lab at Princeton University built a nationwide eviction tracking database by going through hundreds of thousands of court records, but statistics for many cities and states like Wyoming is "sparce, inaccurate or completely missing -- mostly because they’re just that hard to collect," the paper said.