August 28th, 2020
Story

With community members looking on, work crews use a crane to set a modular home duplex onto its foundation in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood of Denver on Aug. 12, 2020. The two-story affordable housing unit will be sold to two families from the Globeville or Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods who are at risk of being displaced.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Michael Booth

Tenants and renters’ rights advocates across Colorado say eviction moratoriums and delays fail to protect large swaths of lower-income families from the crushing financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, as displacement quietly builds in the renting economy.

Optimistic tallies of on-time rent payments from the Colorado Apartment Association reflect higher-income renters in higher-end units owned by big landlords, believes one Denver City Council member, overlooking damage to families forced from single-family homes, odd-size units and informal arrangements not covered by leases.

Renters and advocacy organizations say evictions and displacements are growing because:

  • Large numbers of lower-income tenants pay month-to-month with no legally enforceable lease. Many families are simply leaving after getting locked out, often with nowhere else to go, when the landlord says their time is up.
  • Eviction courts are seeing a buildup in cases now that moratoriums have expired. The state’s stretch of a renter’s “cure” period—starting when rent goes unpaid, and the tenant is warned of resulting consequences if it remains unpaid, such as late fees and eviction—from 10 days to 30 days during the pandemic is now wearing off for many tenants.
  • Landlords can still charge exorbitant late fees on top of back rent when evictions reach the court level, putting a cure out of reach for many tenants.
  • Courts are not always following their own pandemic remote-operating rules meant to ease filings for tenants. They issue summary judgments for failure to respond by the time of a morning trial appointment, for example, when email responses were not technically due until the end of the day.
  • Affordable housing developments facilitated by various local governments are taking years longer to break ground and welcome tenants than originally planned, delaying alternatives for even the small number of families such projects can help.

Reynaldo Bonds and his family slipped through the safety net that state officials said they had tightened.

A single father, Bonds, 51, moved to Denver with his daughter in the fall of 2019, and was working 50 hours per week for a major delivery company when the pandemic hit. Business deliveries plummeted. His delivery area was downtown, Bonds said, and the volume of downtown packages dropped nearly 50%. With his hours cut in half, he fell behind on rent.

The governor’s eviction moratorium helped for a time, but once that expired, Bonds’s landlord posted an eviction notice on June 15—starting the 30-day clock for Bonds to pay up or leave, extended by Gov. Polis’s ongoing executive orders from the usual 10-day clock.

“There’s no dispute COVID is still affecting everything. The money’s not going to just appear,” said Jason Legg, a private attorney who works with the workers’ rights advocacy group 9to5 Colorado (a Colorado Trust grantee) to provide legal assistance on rental issues. Legg is representing Bonds.

“This 30-day window bought a little time but it wasn’t close to a solution, it’s just delaying the avalanche,” Legg said. “That’s what we’re seeing now, the finish line of that process; it takes longer but it has the same result.”

On the day Bonds’s email answer to the eviction was due under remote-court rules, he sent it by noon. Adams County apparently did not follow its own special COVID-19 rules and said it was due at 8:30 that morning, instead of by the end of the day, and issued a default judgment for the landlord. An Adams County court spokesman said the county had updated its remote judicial rules to make it clear when responses are due, and that it appears Bonds reached a settlement with the landlord.

The “settlement” was that Bonds moved out, with sheriff’s officers checking to make sure he was leaving, according to Bonds.

The job cuts and the forced move have been “just devastating to my whole family,” he said. “I’m not a guy who doesn’t pay his bills. It came down to eat or pay the rent. Most people would have chosen to eat, I don’t know.”

As for the eviction process, Bonds said, he knows his apartment building was part of a business, but “the people who can hire the biggest lawyers win.”

Advocates say they are seeing tenant families ground up over and over again by this kind of bureaucratic indifference.

“From our perspective, not only have the executive orders been falling short in terms of duration and enforcement, but the court systems do not seem to be doing their due diligence to make sure the orders are followed,” said Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, state director of 9to5 Colorado.

In lower-income neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, on the north side of Denver, rental arrangements are dominated by single-family homes divided into apartments, landlords with just a couple of units, and well-worn conditions where a front-door key is often the only amenity. A 2016 survey of community members showed that more than half of renters had no formal lease, said Nola Miguel, director of the nonprofit Globeville, Elyria-Swansea Coalition Organizing for Health and Housing Justice (GES Coalition).

“Eviction isn’t necessarily the only indicator of displacement,” Miguel said. “A lot of the families we work with, as soon as they get that notification, they leave, because they don’t want to have to be involved with the court system at all.”

“Eviction is a legal term for a court order, but there are all different ways people are being removed from their properties,” said Denver City Council Member-at-Large Robin Kniech, who has spent extensive time working on housing issues. “Many of our vulnerable are [renting] month to month; there’s no legal system for that. Your lease is up, you have to go.”

Kniech challenges Colorado Apartment Association figures claiming more than 95% of Colorado renters paid on time by the start of July. Kniech said the association samples only a small portion of its membership, and that its membership is concentrated in bigger business, multi-unit apartments where renters are more economically stable.

“The folks most likely to be vulnerable are the least likely to show up in their association figures,” Kniech said. The apartment association did not respond to messages seeking comment about their survey.

Denver stepped up its eviction defense help with council member-directed grants to Colorado Legal Services to set up a consulting office inside City Hall, home to the county courts. Last year, the city boosted funding and made a grant through the Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance (TRUA) program, a combination of city and federal money. Extra attorneys have deepened the attention on the issue, improved casework and been able to help more clients, said Jana Happel, a staff attorney with Colorado Legal Services.

The moratoriums and 30-day window extension helped, Happel said, but she can see tension and demand building in the system now that those are expiring for many clients.

“I can’t give you numbers, but it’s starting to get ‘hair on fire’ and we’re bracing for a big hit,” Happel said.

Denver judges do a good job trying to help eviction clients through the system with the best information, Happel noted. Still, they are often simply explaining the inevitable.

Judges warn defendants that if they contest the eviction and lose, resulting in an official judgment, it can mean a sheriff’s eviction after 48 hours, and monetary damages awarded to the landlord for rent and late fees. Judges warn that such orders go on their record and are seen by future landlords, making it difficult to rent a new place. Denver’s eviction courts can be watched online, and defendants often take that cue to negotiate a settlement with the landlord and leave the apartment.

Kniech and Happel are among those arguing for caps on late fees, limits that currently don’t exist in most Colorado jurisdictions. Late fees are often hundreds of dollars on the first day late in the month, and then smaller amounts each day thereafter. Kniech said she will support renewed efforts in the 2021 state legislature to take on late fees. Landlord representatives have challenged the legality of local late-fee caps in the past, Kniech said.

“The governor has been all over the map. It’s been very difficult for us to legislate locally when you get midnight extensions of these [executive] orders and we don’t know what’s coming,” Kniech said. “We have limited power to function at the local level, and people say, ‘Why doesn’t the city step in?’”  

Some federal and local money meant to help tenants keep up with rent is now available in Denver, though advocates who work with the programs say accessing the funds is complex and time-consuming, and can have a low success rate.

In Globeville—where, according to Miguel, 51% of surveyed residents said they have no contract or are month-to-month on rent—advocates have worked with about 55 people who sought rent assistance. Of those 55, about 26 were able to complete a full application, and 11 of those ended up with money.

Tenants without formal leases often lack the documentation of bills or receipts; others struggle to prove loss of income with paperwork, because many lack checking accounts. Many of the landlords, Miguel said, have just a unit or two and no formal business structure, and can’t provide ledgers documenting losses.

“It’s extremely intensive staff time that we’re not getting paid for—that’s the gap we’re trying to close,” said Miguel, who has suggested paperwork reductions to administrators of the city’s TRUA program.

“We want to do more outreach in the neighborhood, but not if people aren’t able to actually access the resource,” she added. “It’s a waste of time for all of us and the families, to have no result from it.”

Even when neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea gather to celebrate rare victories in the push for housing stability, residents and advocates are quick to mention how bureaucracy quietly delays success.

In mid-August, Elyria-Swansea neighbors sat on curbs in the midday heat to watch a three-story crane drop modular housing units from Nebraska onto an empty lot in the middle of a Fillmore Street block, just north of Interstate 70. The two-story duplexes would sell to income-qualified owners for about $170,000 as part of a land trust made possible by nonprofits, city agencies and mitigation from the rebuilding of the interstate.

Roberta Molock took photos of the crane dropping the second story of the home for which her daughter was in the late stages of qualifying. Molock said their families are currently squeezed into a nearby rental, and watch other families move in and out of rentals across the street as landlords double the price on aging, one-bedroom homes to $1,600 a month.

“Who makes that kind of money,” on top of food and gas and a car and everything else, Molock wondered. She grew up in north central Denver, moved away for a while, then moved back because she wanted her kids “to have the same experience I had, sharing meals with neighbors, playing with friends,” Molock said.

When her daughter, Vanessa, heard about the Fillmore duplexes, “She said, ‘I want one of those!’” Vanessa missed the crane party because she was working. Having a job is an eligibility requirement for landing one of the discounted-price homes.

Molock noticed dignitaries and a construction supervisor headed through the front door of the newly-placed lower story. “Wipe your feet!” she shouted.

Denver City Council Member Candi CdeBaca, who lives close by and is a fifth-generation Elyria-Swansea resident, stopped by to record the scene on video and congratulate the organizers, handing out breakfast burritos under a canopy in a driveway. But she said city government needs to work far faster to smooth affordable housing development and rent assistance.

The Colorado Department of Transportation’s $2 million mitigation grant to the land trust was announced in 2018, CdeBaca noted. Minor zoning and site issues delayed completion of the Fillmore duplex, and similar bureaucratic tangles plague most assistance programs, she said.

“We’ve been through hell and back just to get here,” CdeBaca said. “It’s a very rigid plan for this neighborhood. You’d think they could make it faster—it shows where our priorities are as a city.”

As the pandemic’s long-term economic fallout unfolds, and legal advocates brace for a growing flood of eviction-related cases and desperate clients, they want word to get out that a state delay in taking tenants to court should not be the last step in government policy change. Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans are still unemployed after the spring pandemic shutdowns, the next wave of federal aid is limited and has strings attached, and apartments will get emptied out by landlords one way or another.

Reynaldo Bonds had a brief respite from a court date, and escaped having his possessions tossed on a street corner, but his troubles continue, Legg, his attorney, said.

“It’s a very traumatic event and dropped his living standards, and will haunt him through collections down the road,” Legg said. “The idea that it’s a win—that’s a shame in Colorado.”

Michael Booth
Writer
Denver, Colorado