With large parts of the economy shut down, eviction spike looms in Summit County
FRISCO — The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown has inflicted a crippling body blow to the economy. Since mid-March, more than 26 million Americans and nearly 300,000 Coloradans have filed for unemployment, with Summit County being hit especially hard with the shutdown of its core industries: ski resorts, tourism, restaurants, hospitality, retail and lodging.
Thousands of Summit County workers who lost their jobs in the past few weeks lost their main source of income. Those who rent their homes are caught in a Catch-22, where they are forced out of work yet still expected to pay rent to their landlords, who in turn have their own costs to cover with mortgage payments, homeowners association fees and other expenses.
“In Colorado, we have seen the vast majority of people in the service industry who can’t go to work, but there’s still an expectation that bills are paid and paid on time,” said Zach Neumann, head of a volunteer advocacy initiative called the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project that is providing resources and guidance to Coloradans threatened by eviction during the pandemic. “It is obviously affecting everyone in every part of the United States, but the pandemic is especially affecting parts of the country where the service industry and tourism are the bedrock of the economy.”
Colorado already had an affordable housing problem before the pandemic, and now the sudden evaporation of people’s livelihoods has made paying rent “an insurmountable obstacle” for many families, Neumann said.
The main issue driving a potential eviction crisis in Colorado is the lack of an enforceable statewide moratorium on rent or mortgage payments, he said.
Through an executive order signed in March, Gov. Jared Polis directed state and local authorities to work with landlords to find lawful means of avoiding evictions and suggested late fees and vacancy notices be waived.
But these are merely suggestions; there is no statewide freeze on evictions, and the guidance for working with landlords is not binding or enforceable. In defending the lack of teeth in the order, Polis said he simply does not have the legal authority to enforce a rent moratorium.
“No governor, no president has the legal ability to suspend the sanctity of contract law,” Polis said during a press conference April 13. “No state has done that.”
Even if no executive leader in America has absolute power to cancel or modify contracts, at least 30 other states have imposed statewide moratoriums on evictions during the pandemic. The state of Washington went as far as taking a property management group to court for posting notices to vacate on delinquent tenant’s doors in violation of the state’s moratorium on evictions, which is in effect until June 4.
The Eviction Lab, a project created by Princeton University that studies housing policy across the nation when it comes to evictions and preventing homelessness, came up with a scorecard comparing the policy approaches taken by each state.
The scorecard rated Colorado as one of the 10 worst states in the nation on evictions, scoring 0.5 out of 5 stars. In its report on Colorado, the Eviction Lab cited the lack of statewide orders in Colorado expressly limiting evictions, which means that there are no real protections for tenants from eviction and homelessness.
The few positive notes Colorado and Polis received on the scorecard are part of the executive order directing the state’s Public Utilities Commission to work with utility companies to suspend shutoffs for nonpayment, with all Colorado utility companies complying with the order.
Guidance and resources
While Polis’ executive order in Colorado has no teeth to force a rent payment moratorium, it does give judicial districts and sheriff’s offices across the state the ability to suspend eviction proceedings and avoid using state resources to facilitate them. That leaves it to Colorado’s 64 counties and the hundreds of associated municipalities to come up with their own policies for evictions.
Summit County is part of Colorado’s Fifth Judicial District, which has suspended all proceedings not relating to public safety — including evictions — until Friday, April 24. But that reprieve from filing evictions in court will be lifted April 27, when the court will proceed with all normal business through electronic means, including evictions. After that, all bets are off, and evictions will be allowed to proceed.
Other judicial districts serving the majority of Colorado’s residents have imposed similar moratoriums, but the Seventh Judicial District, which includes Montrose, is still processing evictions during the pandemic.
The disparate approaches to evictions across the state is causing confusion and stress for renters, Neumann said.
“We’re hearing from our tenants that there are so many sources of authority, so many actors in this space, that it’s hard to find out what their specific situation is,” Neumann said. “The inconsistency is making it hard to make good decisions on how to move forward. I think it’s creating confusion for both landlords and tenants. Nobody’s really sure what the rules of the game are, and it’s making the situation much harder to navigate.”
Polis’ executive order also directed several state agencies, including the state’s Department of Local Affairs, “to work with property owners and landlords to identify any lawful measure to avoid removing or executing eviction procedures.” In practice, that direction also has no teeth to prevent evictions. Natreice Bryant, deputy executive director of the Department of Local Affairs, said that while her department is trying to help, it has no ability to prevent people from being evicted for nonpayment if their courts are allowing evictions to proceed.
However, Bryant said that the state is ramping up resources to help tenants who find themselves unable to pay rent or negotiate reasonable terms with their landlords. Bryant suggested anyone who is having this kind of difficulty to dial 211, the state’s independent information and referral call center, to learn about rental assistance and other programs that could help.
The Summit County and town governments have set aside funds for their rental assistance programs. To help alleviate financial pressure on homeowners, Summit County Treasurer Ryne Scholl said the county is allowing half-payments of property taxes this month, with the other half due June 15.
The Family & Intercultural Resource Center is also administering funds given through grants to help locals who need assistance with rent, food or health insurance costs. Details on how to schedule an appointment with a resource center navigator can be found at SummitFIRC.org.
As far as what individuals and landlords can do on their own to try to negotiate reducing, waiving or delaying rent payments, the Colorado Apartment Association — a trade group representing owners, developers and management companies in the state — has provided guidance and resources on its website, CAAhq.org, for landlords and tenants on how to communicate and bring about amiable solutions.
If nothing more is done, however, the COVID Eviction Defense Project projects that nearly 500,000 Coloradans will face eviction risk when the various judicial district moratoriums expire. If many of those people ultimately end up homeless, and landlords have fewer eligible tenants to offer their units to, Neumann said there is a real threat of a massive housing crisis, depriving people of shelter they need to avoid the spread of the virus.
Neumann said he has spoken with about a dozen state legislators, and he said they all agree that the looming problem needs to be remedied. To that end, Neumann and the advocacy project recommend five steps that state lawmakers should take to avoid an eviction crisis.
- Create an enforceable statewide eviction moratorium for 30-60 days. The period would allow tenants time to recover financially and work with landlords to reach payment agreements. Neumann said he understood that the step would be unprecedented in Colorado but not necessarily impossible. He said it’s a measure that must be taken to avoid a patchwork legal situation across the state that see some county’s residents avoiding eviction while others are put out on the street.
- Ban notices of vacancies or demands on tenant’s doors. This is to prevent confusion about whether tenants are actually being evicted while the various judicial moratoriums are in place.
- Extending existing cure periods for delinquency that would give tenants who receive demands more time to earn money, negotiate with their landlords and make other efforts to remain in their homes while social distancing orders are in place. It also would alleviate the burden on the state’s courts to process a deluge of evictions.
- Regulating late fees, to ensure they are not so unreasonable as to make it impossible for tenants to pay back their landlords when the recommended statewide moratorium expires.
- Increasing penalties for illegal lockouts, such as with landlords changing locks on the door or shutting off services to pressure tenants to leave.
Neumann said a statewide moratorium on evictions, while questionable in its legality, is the critical and main piece of the defense project’s recommendations, as it would allow for all parties to financially recover and be in a good situation to get back on track when the pandemic ultimately subsides.
“The result is less confusion, more transparency and more flexibility for tenants and landlords,” he said.
Neumann added that while there have been some “bad” or at least morally questionable actors among landlords he has dealt with through his project, he has found many who have been “good” and have gone to lengths to work with their tenants and avoid evicting them. He encouraged landlords to follow those examples to do the right thing and do what they can to allow their tenants to stay in their homes while also covering their own bottom line.
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