A roller coaster week for eviction prevention and housing justice

Eviction and mortgage debt, foreclosure or difficulty to payback bank mortgage loan concept, bankruptcy man and family fighting to hold back their house with big legal hand evict it by law.
Eviction and mortgage debt

On Friday, June 25, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law SB173, which will “ensure tenants have more options to stay housed,” the bill’s prime sponsor, State Senator Julie Gonzales, says. “More Coloradans than ever find themselves working harder just to make rent and keep up with the rising cost of living. [We] believe this will help more Colorado renters make rent and avoid the eviction process altogether.”

It’s the latest in a collection of seven housing justice bills the Colorado state Legislature has passed since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. Among a suite of changes, the new law, which doesn’t go into effect until October, establishes a cap on landlord-issued late fees, extends the grace period for rental payments and eliminates the bond tenants are currently required to pay to courts when disputing living standards.  

“This brings Colorado law in line with other states, kind of catching us up,” explains Zach Neumann, co-founder of the Denver-based COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. “The legislation really addresses the court process around evictions. It essentially creates more time to pay back rent. It creates more rights and the ability to assert defenses in the eviction process.” 

These are but few of the many changes Colorado housing justice advocates have been working on for years. “Colorado is a landlord-friendly state,” explains Sen. Gonzales. When Princeton University’s Eviction Lab created a COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard last year, Colorado was issued a score of 0.73 out of a possible 5.00. If silver linings to the pandemic exist, one of them is that COVID has highlighted and accelerated the need for more tenant protections and rental assistance programs. 

“I don’t know if [SB173] is going to fundamentally change eviction, which is a conflict in power between the tenant and the landlord,” says Ruy Arango, a housing justice advocate in Boulder. “That being said, this is all good. Colorado tenant’s rights are dogshit, so this is all a step in the right direction. These are very small steps though.”

The day before Polis signed SB173, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a final extension to its ban on evictions, which blocks landlords from evicting tenants who are currently unable to pay rent and don’t have another safe housing option if they are evicted. This nationwide moratorium will now expire on
July 31. 

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 7% of Coloradans are not current on rent or mortgage payments, or have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time. Among these households, it’s “very likely or somewhat likely” more than 30% will face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. Translation: 77,000 more Coloradans will likely face eviction or foreclosure by the time school starts in August — and before SB173 goes into effect. 

“So we’re going to have a period of August and September where cases that are getting processed are not being processed under SB173,” Neumann says. Even then, the new law doesn’t put a “blanket stop on evictions.”

The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project is most concerned about what will happen to clients who, due to COVID-related work stoppages, fell behind on rent and lack of access to benefits. Even if they have now gone back to work, many have a debt they can’t repay, says Neumann. “There’s significant rental assistance available,” he explains. “But a number of renters who need access to this resource don’t know it exists, or alternatively they’re in the process of getting the assistance, but because of federal guidelines, it takes quite a long time to successfully complete the whole process. Without the protection of the moratorium in place, folks who are waiting in line for rental assistance may face eviction because they haven’t been able to access funds quickly enough.” 

Arango, chair for the No Eviction Without Representation (NEWR) campaign that resulted in a City of Boulder ordinance guaranteeing legal assistance to tenants in eviction cases and creating rental assistance programs, says the CDC’s moratorium extension is “entirely insufficient.”

“We’re still reeling from the effects of COVID, people are still getting COVID, the world and our nation is still dealing with this epidemic,” he explains. “There’s this desire to go back to, ironic air-quotes, ‘business as usual,’ but for eviction, that means taking people out of their homes and making them homeless.” 

Boulder’s Eviction Prevention and Rental Assistance Services (EPRAS) program (NEWR’s legacy) has already begun providing free legal and rental assistance to tenants facing eviction, and the City is currently interviewing candidates for the new Tenant Advisory Committee. 

Still, Arango says, the fundamental issue of eviction and the housing crisis more generally won’t be solved “as long as we use a market to distribute housing and determine who gets access to housing and who does not, because the market needs winners and losers, and the need for housing is inelastic — as in your need for water is inelastic. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, the amount of thirst you have is the amount of thirst you have. Everyone needs water, everyone needs housing, and unless we address and change this fundamental contradiction in how we give people access to housing in our country, we are still going to experience eviction. You will still experience housing insecurity.” 

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