By Fran Kritz
Despite two weeks of a harsh cough and feeling achy and awful while she was sick with COVID-19, as well as lingering shortness of breath weeks later, contracting the coronavirus in late October is not the worst thing that has happened to Mireya Marquez this year.
Marquez, 39, a transgender woman living in Denver, was evicted from her apartment at the end of May. Marquez is a house painter by training, but has found those jobs hard to come by after transitioning several years ago—and even more so as painting projects have dwindled over the course of the pandemic.
In March, Marquez was working as a stock person at a food company, but left when she felt workers were standing too close together as COVID-19 cases began increasing in Denver. With little money coming in, Marquez came to an agreement with her landlord that had her out of the apartment at the end of May. But she didn’t have enough money to put down a security deposit on a new place.
“Housing is so expensive,” Marquez says in Spanish, via a translator. “How can someone making minimum wage afford it, and what do you do when the jobs go away?”
Marquez moved in with friends and pays $600 each month toward the rent. While she tries to fully recover from COVID-19—she may have contracted the virus in October while working as a restaurant server on weekends, or during a quick trip to see her mother in El Paso, Texas, but isn’t sure—Marquez is staying at another friend’s empty apartment for free. She continues to pay her share of the rent on the other apartment.
Marquez says that losing her own apartment without time to get her footing financially has meant that her dogs—“my babies,” as she calls them—are now living with her mother in El Paso, because her friends wouldn’t allow the pets. Marquez’s mother is also helping her with money for the rent share.
“I’m embarrassed,” says Marquez. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I was never behind on my rent and I never had debts.”
It’s unclear how many people have been evicted in Colorado, or who are at risk of eviction. A report issued in October by a special eviction task force appointed by Gov. Jared Polis reported landlord data that 95% of renters were paying monthly rent on time, and delinquencies were up only 2% over pre-pandemic rates.
But the report acknowledged that it did not have data on evictions by smaller landlords, who may rely more heavily on rental income to pay mortgages and may have to initiate evictions sooner than landlords of larger properties. And concerns persist that month-to-month renters—among the most financially vulnerable populations weathering the pandemic—are also not being accurately or fully counted.
The number of financially unstable households since the pandemic began is hard to assess, say advocates. Many people, including Mireya Marquez, left their apartments as back rent piled up, and moved in with friends or family; were temporarily helped by federal stimulus checks and extra weekly unemployment money, which ended in July; or are seeing debts pile up during the on-again, off-again state and federal eviction moratoriums.
Natriece Bryant, deputy director in the Office of the Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, which has jurisdiction for housing assistance, says their office has provided rental assistance funds through nonprofit organizations to about 10,000 households since the pandemic began.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, based in Denver, recently estimated that 345,000 to 436,000 people in Colorado are at risk of eviction, defined as people currently unable to pay their rent.
In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced a nationwide eviction moratorium for individuals making less than $99,000 per year and couples making under $198,000. Yet the directive came with no financial assistance and requires that people sign a declaration that they will continue making efforts to pay their rent.
A Colorado statewide eviction moratorium was lifted in July. In October, Gov. Polis issued a series of executive orders that put in place many of the recommendations of the state eviction task force, including:
- A directive that builds upon the CDC moratorium—which many tenants knew nothing about, according to advocates like Patrick Noonan, who runs the Colorado Housing Connects hotline for people seeking rent assistance—by requiring that landlords post an eviction notice with details in Spanish and English, and discuss a potential eviction with tenants before initiating proceedings. The state also issued a FAQ for tenants and landlords.
- Suspension of late fees and interest until Dec. 31, 2020.
- A 30-day extended period to resolve past-due rent, up from 10 days before the pandemic began, for both commercial and residential eviction proceedings.
Since March, more than $30 million in CARES Act funding has been directed toward rent relief and other housing assistance in Colorado, according to Bryant.
"Governor Polis's new eviction moratorium goes well beyond what the CDC and other states have done, and has helped thousands of people who are facing eviction,” says Zach Neumann, a lawyer who founded and directs the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. “This will make a big difference and keep families housed through the holidays.”
That said, Neumann points out, “these kinds of legal protections don't apply to people who were evicted [between moratoriums].”
Marquez’s predicament applies. She is sorely disappointed that federal and state protections that might have helped her avoid eviction last spring have only been introduced in the last few weeks. With funds short for her April rent when she lost her job, she asked to pay later in the month, but the landlord shut off her water and began sending threatening text messages.
Marquez initially moved to a motel, worried for her safety and that of her dogs, and called the Colorado chapter of 9to5 (a Colorado Trust grantee), a national association representing working women. 9to5 Colorado connected her with an attorney, Jason Legg, who works with the organization. Legg is paid for some of his 9to5 legal work through grants the organization receives, but clients—including Marquez—are not charged.
With Legg’s help, Marquez’s agreement with the landlord was negotiated, but before the governor issued the first eviction moratorium in mid-April. Instead, Marquez’s agreement allowed her to stay at the motel, paid for by the landlord through the end of May, but she had to vacate the apartment and her lease was terminated.
At the start of the agreement, “I was sure I’d be making enough money to get my own place, but I just couldn’t find work,” Marquez says, “so I had to move in with my friends.”
Noonan, the program manager for Colorado Housing Connects, a state-funded hotline for people seeking assistance to avoid eviction, says between January 1 and March 15, the hotline averaged close to 300 calls per month. Since March 15—when the state began shutting down due to the pandemic—and through late October, the number of monthly calls specifically about rental assistance have averaged over 1,100.
Noonan and the other hotline operators direct callers to local nonprofits who have gotten state funding to help with rent relief.
“Until recently, the calls were largely asking about where to find help for their rent—but in the last few weeks, with the CDC moratorium and the governor’s executive orders, it’s become so confusing that people are also calling about that,” Noonan says. “It’s been hard for us to keep up with the changes, let alone the average person out there.”
Noonan says many of the groups will work with clients to “cure” back rent and then help on a month-to-month basis, depending on the availability of funds. Lawyers with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project also try to negotiate both back and future rent down.
“We see a mix of old and new clients, some people just one time who need help understanding what they have to do in terms of the moratorium, others who need funds,” Noonan says. While most of their clients are facing eviction, Noonan says they do hear occasionally from people who were evicted previously and are now looking for a place to live.
“We try to problem-solve,” says Noonan. “For example, we tell a person with an eviction on their financial records that they may do better with a smaller landlord who doesn’t have a strict black-and-white policy about who qualifies to rent an apartment.”
With winter approaching and COVID-19 cases on the rise, renters in arrears and housing advocates are all grateful for the eviction moratoriums, but say it’s far from enough.
“The biggest battle between now and the end of the virus will be the huge effort to provide as many people as possible with financial assistance,” says Noonan. “If you are able to pay someone’s rent and stabilize them, they no longer have a legal or financial problem, and it’s a win for the tenant and the landlord. It’s the financial assistance that is the durable solution.”
“I think that to the extent the state has funds that it can use flexibly, more should be spent on housing and people at risk of homelessness should be prioritized,” says Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (CCLP), also a Colorado Trust grantee. “This crisis is of never-seen-before proportions that is beyond the scope of nonprofit groups to help all those in need.”
The problem, says Neumann, who is “overall happy” with the recent executive orders, is that the funding falls short by tens of millions. New federal stimulus funding has remained stalled in Congress as of publication.
The governor’s office agrees. “Congress also needs to step up, which is why the governor continues to urge Washington D.C. to act and pass a real relief package,” says Conor Cahill, the governor’s press secretary, also pointing out that a one-time relief payment of $375 was recently approved to be sent in early December to people currently receiving unemployment benefits. Additionally, the governor called a special session of the state legislature to convene on Nov. 30, specifically to address economic stimulus needs arising from the pandemic.
Sam Gilman, one of the co-founders of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project with Neumann, remains concerned about what lies ahead, until a vaccine is widely available and jobs return in full force.
“Winter’s coming, cases are up,” says Gilman. “I’d also urge the governor to extend the eviction moratorium after Dec. 31 to buy renters time for a systemic solution, which is federal rental assistance.”
Legg, Marquez’s attorney, says despite the moratorium, he is still handling eviction cases for a number of reasons: “People often don’t know about the moratorium, and it’s not a blanket protection. You need to use it against the threat of eviction, which can take some knowledge of the executive order, as well as language skills.”
Legg says he has also seen “misconduct by landlords, some of whom have taken advantage of the fact that not everyone renting an apartment who is at risk of eviction knows about the moratorium or have availed themselves of it.”
Sometimes, the first steps of eviction are enough to scare many people into simply leaving their apartment, Legg adds: “I speak to people who, after the first notice, are already on a friend’s couch.”
Marquez recently begun working one day a week at the restaurant that employed her before she contracted the virus, though new restrictions on indoor dining announced on Nov. 17 for Denver and other counties could end that. She also does occasional work for house painting companies, finding jobs posted on Facebook and getting paid by the hour. She no longer takes jobs on her own because she was not paid for some of the work.
“My dream is to get my cosmotology license, but first I have to work on my English,” says Marquez, who is originally from Mexico, has a work permit and plans to apply for a green card in 2021.
But even if Marquez finds stable work, she has little hope of landing an apartment of her own anytime soon.
“Landlords have so many requirements, and you have to make triple the amount of the rent each month,” Marquez says. “For someone like me, it’s impossible to make that kind of money now.
“Every day, I dream of buying my own home, so that no one can evict me.”
Related story: Fears Grow Over a Forthcoming Eviction Surge in Colorado