Housing Divided, Part 12: Renters vulnerable in disputes with landlords
December 7, 2016
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Housing Divided is a 13-part series from the Summit Daily News taking an in-depth look at our regional housing crisis. We’re exploring the subject from every angle, featuring stories on seasonal workers, government and nonprofit solutions, homelessness, the impact of short-term rentals, the prevalence of second-home owners and deed-restricted housing.
Editor's note: This is the twelfth in a 13-part series. Installments will appear each Thursday in the Summit Daily.
On Aug. 18, Jim McGuire and his girlfriend, Mary Rose Hills, moved into a room in a Dillon Valley house that they verbally agreed to pay $700 a month for. The place needed some work, but McGuire, recently out of a job, agreed to help out on various projects around the house rather than pay a security deposit. It wasn't a perfect arrangement, he said, but the tight housing market left him with few options.
As the weather started to get colder, the setup quickly became a nightmare. McGuire and Hills say their landlord has not turned on the heat despite repeated verbal requests and two written requests, and temperatures inside the house are now as low as 42 degrees at night.
In September, roots grew into the plumbing system, causing raw sewage to back up in the downstairs bathroom and flood several feet into the carpeted hallway.
That wasn't the end of their troubles. In mid-November, Hills and McGuire started turning on the oven and leaving it open to get a little bit of heat. That ran up the electric bill, they said, and their landlord, who pays the utilities, demanded they stop. But there still wasn't heat, and soon a pipe burst upstairs after freezing in the night, sending water running down the walls and stairs. McGuire said the house has flooded at least nine times.
A small patch of black mold is now visible on ceiling beams where soggy drywall had to be ripped out, and there are no fire or carbon monoxide alarms, as required by law.
"We knew it was a fixer-upper when we moved in, but the house was supposed to be well-maintained," said Hills. "These things were supposed to be fixed by now."
Their landlord, who is currently attempting to evict McGuire and Hills, declined to comment for this story. In a right of possession notice posted on Nov. 20, he cited failure to pay rent, untruthful reporting of employment status, failure to deal in good faith and failure to keep the peace due to a domestic violence incident. (According to the Public Interest Network, landlords may not evict tenants because of a domestic violence call or because a tenant is a victim of domestic violence.)
McGuire has since gained steady employment, but he and Hills are a month overdue on rent. They said they don't feel they should have to pay, given that the house isn't habitable under the law and that McGuire put in 40 hours of work on projects the landlord halted and didn't compensate him for.
When a house stops being a home
McGuire and Hills' ordeal is an extreme example of how Summit County's housing crisis, which has seen rents rising faster than local incomes, can limit people's options or make them reluctant to assert their rights as tenants.
What's more, when tenants have disputes with their landlords — whether it be over substandard living conditions, illegal entry or withholding of a security deposit, their only real recourse is litigation.
McGuire said he and Hills tried for nearly two months to resolve the disputes with their landlord amicably, but that devolved into mutual hostility and no progress was made. That's when they turned to the legal system, with McGuire spending his nights after work poring over law books and highlighting relevant passages.
Their landlord filed an eviction on Friday, and after a consultation with Colorado Legal Aid, they've decided to hire an attorney and challenge the eviction on the grounds that their unit is uninhabitable. While the wheels of the legal system turn, they remain in the lurch, unsure how much longer they'll be able to stay in substandard living conditions — or if the problems will ever get fixed.
"If you have to hire an attorney it can get expensive really fast, and if (the other party) wants to fight it, it can be time consuming and difficult," said local attorney Todd Barson.
While small claims and eviction suits usually get put on an expedited docket, that doesn't always mean a quick and cheap resolution. And for those with mouths to feed while juggling multiple jobs, leveraging the legal system can be difficult.
"It's not something you can count on as totally reliable because it can be available sporadically and there's more demand from citizens than there are lawyers doing pro bono work," Barson said. "They're pretty strapped and it can be difficult to find a day that works."
The only other option — to pick up and go — has so far been a non-starter; the couple can't find any places remotely within their price range, particularly since rents have started to tick up with the arrival of ski season.
"We've certainly seen issues with some clients that are concerning from a public health standpoint," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of the Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC), whose organization refers clients to groups like Colorado Legal Aid that provide assistance to low-income clients.
The most common problems, Drangstveit said, are mold and bedbugs, although only a small percentage of the roughly 3,500 families FIRC sees a year have such issues at their homes.
She said that's one of the reasons her organization started offering "Ready to Rent" classes that teach people their rights — and obligations — as renters.
"In an environment where we have some supply and demand issues, we're starting to see a little more of that. But it's a small minority — most of our landlords are wonderful."
The most fundamental right renters have is to live in a place that is deemed habitable under the law and free from environmental health hazards, such as mold and vermin. However, like in most jurisdictions, government agencies in the county aren't charged with investigating and adjudicating such grievances; that's a process carried out by lawyers, judges and mediators.
While the Environmental Health Department conducts routine inspections on food service establishments, childcare facilities and schools, it's not charged with conducting inspections at residences or responding to complaints.
The department gets occasional reports from tenants, but its response is typically to provide educational materials and point people in the direction of legal aid should the problem persist.
"We work with folks, but we don't have regulations," said environmental health manager Dan Hendershott. "Between landlords and tenants, it's very rare to have a housing code — Denver is the only one I can think of."
As far as mold goes, there is no federally or locally mandated level of unsafe exposure. That's because exposure symptoms are an allergic-type reaction that varies from person to person, and testing the air for spores can be difficult and uncertain.
"It's not natural to see visible mold and moisture in a home," Hendershott said. "Moisture can also lead to volatile organic compounds being released. If you see it, you should fix it."
Town officials are focused primarily on compliance during construction, said Frisco building inspector Greg Denckla, whose office doesn't handle environmental health issues but responds to reports of missing carbon monoxide and fire alarms in residences.
"We get a few of these (calls) this time of year every year because new people are moving in that don't know their rights as tenants and the responsibilities of their landlords," said Lake Dillon Fire public information officer Steve Lipsher. "But we generally don't get involved in disputes. … we don't have the authority to cite people or compel them to install."
Into court and out of the county
In October, Denckla responded to a report from Amy Suplee that her unit didn't have a carbon monoxide detector. Her apartment, at the Lagoon Townhomes in Frisco, was above a parking garage, and she called it in after smelling exhaust and feeling nauseous.
"The management company was very responsive, got in there and got it installed," Denckla said. "Our code requires they be installed in any dwelling unit, and you can't legally transfer a property without it. Does it get overlooked sometimes? Probably. But we rarely get calls about it."
Wildernest Property Management, which oversees the Lagoon Townhomes, also sealed some holes in the fireproof layer of the walls. But Suplee says she had other problems with the company that prompted her to move out after two months and file suit against the company in small claims court; otherwise, she would have to forfeit her security deposit and the remainder of the rent due on her yearlong lease. She has also made a report with the Housing and Urban Development Authority's fair housing unit.
Suplee alleges that Wildernest misrepresented the property and entered her unit multiple times without her knowledge. She also says that repeated requests for cleaning in common areas weren't being answered, Wildernest declined to comment on the specifics of Suplee's case because she would not sign a release freeing them to do so.
Suplee said she was unable to do a walk-through of her apartment before moving in in late September, but was told in an email from Wildernest it was a "very nice, clean, awesome property. Immaculate actually" and in "ready to move in condition."
By Suplee's account, this was not the case: she took photos of dirty kitchen appliances; rusted bathroom fixtures with holes in them; a broken door latch; a broken, bent and rusted heater; a closet door falling off its hinges; and cracked tiles on the bathroom sink, on which she cut her finger while cleaning.
She said she was also reassured that the unit had two bedrooms, but that one of them was long and narrow — good for an office or guest bedroom. That room, however, isn't a bedroom under Colorado law, which requires a window and closet for that classification. (A new online listing of the property posted after Suplee moved out lists it as a one-bedroom).
A little over a week later Wildernest arranged for a contractor to replace cabinets, sink fixtures, repaint interior walls, replace bedroom blinds, fix the closet door and replace the cracked tiles.
That, however, set up the other dispute: Suplee claims that Wildernest employees and agents twice entered her apartment without her knowledge, once after she had requested that in the future she be given 24-hour notice before entry. Her claim that there were witnesses to this entry couldn't immediately be verified.
Wildernest isn't due in small claims court until March 13 of next year, and it's unclear whether or not a settlement will be reached before then.
For some, having thousands of dollars tied up in a small claims suit could make the process of moving and finding a new place all the more difficult, particularly when there aren't many options out there.
For Suplee, it wasn't worth trying to stick around looking for housing while paying an attorney's fees and with the future of her deposit and remaining rent uncertain.
"I moved out of state," she said. "There was just no more housing here — zero."