The modest retirement account belonging to Samantha Velez’s family has been reset to zero.
Just last month, with the coronavirus pandemic gutting jobs and slashing the family’s incomes, that money was used for something more pressing: rent.
“Sometimes, you got to do what you got to do,” Velez said. “For now, we’re looking at the short-term goal, which is to make sure we have what the kids need.”
Across the Pikes Peak region and Colorado, people are scrambling to pay rent and stay off the streets — dipping into retirement savings, moving in with relatives and frantically searching for the few remaining job openings still available. But many experts say those measures can only go so far, and over the next few months, thousands of people could lose their apartments and houses to eviction without more financial help or flexibility from landlords.
As many as 392,000 Coloradans are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, according to a joint study by the Aspen Financial Security Program and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which was formed in March to pair attorneys with struggling tenants.
For the past few months, a one-time $1,200 federal stimulus check and an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits have been all that's kept many of them afloat.
With the extra unemployment benefits about to come to an end, housing advocates fear a spike in homelessness not seen since the Great Recession. Evicted tenants would receive a black mark on their rental history that could make finding another apartment or house exponentially more difficult.
Before the pandemic hit, communities across Colorado had faced a severe shortage of affordable housing. The addition of more than 630,000 Coloradans since March to the state’s unemployment rolls — including nearly 66,000 people in El Paso and Teller counties — could turn that shortage into an unmitigated crisis.
Already, nonprofits say they are being slammed with calls for help.
“This is extremely unique. (In) 2008 we saw the economic recession, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as this is right now,” said Capt. Doug Hanson of the local Salvation Army chapter. “We don’t really see the end in sight.”
Some doubt whether that predicted tsunami of evictions will come to pass.
Laura Nelson, executive director of the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado, said delinquency rates remain at levels comparable to previous years. She added that apartment owners and property management firms will do all they can to avoid evictions.
“They don’t benefit from having an empty unit, so if they can work with folks, they certainly will,” Nelson said.
Still, she added that Congress needs to approve another stimulus plan if those delinquency rates are to hold steady.
“The big concern is going to come when the unemployment (stimulus) stops, which is the end of this month,” Nelson said. “Some, depending on how they budgeted, may have money for August rent.
"But then September is going to be the real kicker, probably.”
Protections starting to lapse
So far, tenants unable to pay rent have been shielded by a menagerie of state and federal orders.
A statewide moratorium on evictions lasted from April 30 until June 13. Afterward, Gov. Jared Polis temporarily extended the time that landlords must give tenants to pay overdue rent from 10 days to 30.
For Velez, that added time was pivotal. But keeping up on rent meant using every penny from her husband’s retirement account to pay $2,400 that was past due.
Their bills started stacking up when her husband left his job at a car dealership where he worked for quickly-evaporating commissions to, instead, deliver food for DoorDash. Velez also saw her hours cut at a local hospital, where she helps supply nurses and doctors with equipment.
With three children to house and feed, she said having extra time to pay rent was critical. But she worries about not paying rent in the future, especially with the retirement account empty.
“We have a chance of falling behind again," Velez said. "Because if a second wave is to happen like they're predicting, then hours at the hospital will be cut. So there's no guarantee that we'll stay ahead.”
Many of those state and federal protections are starting to lapse.
In general, landlords were able to begin filing eviction complaints for nonpayment in El Paso County court a few days ago, though it wasn't immediately clear if there was a sizable rush to the courthouse.
Instead, the vast majority of eviction filings likely won’t come for several weeks, experts said.
A moratorium on federally-subsidized housing, as well as on homes covered by federally-backed mortgages will expire in about a week.
And a key date looms on Saturday, when federal stimulus funding that added $600 a week to unemployment checks comes to an end.
Advocates said those benefits were critical in keeping people housed while the economy bled jobs at an unprecedented rate.
The checks were the only thing helping Flora Rodriguez, 56, and her three teenagers from ending up on the street. She was furloughed from her job as a hospice worker in April and has yet to be called back.
She isn’t sure what’s going to happen at the end of the month when her unemployment checks drop to their typical levels. She pays about $1,600-$1,700 a month in rent and utilities for their house.
“It’s going to be tough — that’s the only way I’m making it now,” she said, of the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. “It’s going to be really tough. A lot of people are going to end up homeless.”
Bombarded with requests for help
More unemployment assistance may be needed as the pandemic drags on, said Robert Carr, vice president of operations for Weidner Apartment Homes.
But talk of a pending deluge of evictions appears premature and overblown, he said.
The “overwhelming majority” of tenants in the firm's 3,000 units across the Pikes Peak region have paid rent on time so far during the pandemic, Carr said.
The key is being flexible with clients impacted by the pandemic, he said. About 4% to 5% of Weidner’s tenants in the area have accepted payment plans intended to keep them in their homes. The company even extended some apartment leases up to a year, to give tenants more time to pay.
Some tenants also have been released from their leases without termination fees, so they could move in with relatives.
“The last thing we want is to evict a bunch of people in the middle of a global pandemic,” Carr said. “That’s not in anybody’s best interest”
He said Weidner also has expenses to consider — mortgages, employee salaries, utilities, taxes and maintenance costs that have continued during the pandemic. While Weidner can cover those costs for the time being, other landlords may not be able to.
“Some landlords who are not being as flexible, it’s because they can’t be,” Carr said. “They’re in a situation where if they don’t get rent back, they won’t be able to pay their mortgage, they’re not going to be able to keep the lights on.”
Local nonprofit leaders, however, say it's only a matter of time before tenants end up on the street.
Already, organizations across the Pikes Peak region are being bombarded with requests for help paying rent.
Calls to the Pikes Peak United Way's 211 line from March through June jumped nearly 90% from the same period last year. That included calls it took in a partnership with the county's emergency operations center.
Most of the requests sought help paying for rent, utilities or food, said Deana Hunt, the organization's senior vice president of community impact.
Catholic Charities of Central Colorado has helped 189 households with rent payments since the start of May. That compares with less than 80 households all last year.
And while it's given away about $150,000 in rental assistance so far, it field another $40,000 in requests that weren't granted, largely due to having to cap requests.
The people seeking that help have rarely, if ever, come to its doors seeking rental assistance, said Andy Barton, the organization’s president and CEO.
“This situation is touching not just the most vulnerable that we usually see, but a whole new population of folks who were living right on the margins,” Barton said.
To cope, some people are moving in with family members or friends.
A traveling nurse for nine years, Sandy Maestas, 55, saw several potential positions dry up during the pandemic. The only real opportunities are in COVID-19 wards, work she preferred to avoid.
Instead, she moved into her grandfather’s house in Colorado Springs with a few other relatives and a family friend.
She shudders to think what would have happened without help from her family.
“I never thought that this would happen again,” Maestas said. “But when things get rough, families pull together.”
Need for help is rising
The rush of federal stimulus, as well as a rise in private donations throughout the region, has thus far helped many tenants weather housing crises.
The state Legislature set aside nearly $20 million in federal stimulus funding specifically for rental and mortgage assistance and other housing issues. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is pumping money into the region, including several hundred thousand dollars to nonprofits for rental assistance.
Other federal stimulus pots also added millions of dollars to help nonprofits and bolster the area's response to homelessness and, to a lesser extent, rental woes.
The local Salvation Army chapter gave away about $200,000 in government funding and private donations over the last few months, with each household receiving an average of $1,150, said Hanson, who oversees the nonprofit. It's waiting for word on another round of funding, and until then, has stopped taking rental assistance applications due to a lack of money.
And Family Promise of Colorado Springs has received several new donations and grants since the pandemic hit, increasing its rental assistance fund more than seven fold to $375,000.
Other entities, such as Westside CARES and Brothers Redevelopment, also are helping renters.
But the need for help is rising.
About 90% of the inquiries to Mercy’s Gate over the past few months were for rental assistance, said Jason Dilger, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Recent donations have nearly doubled his rental assistance budget for the year from $53,000 to $103,000. Another check could arrive any day pushing that total even higher.
Even so, he said that still won’t be enough to meet demand.
Before the pandemic hit, his organization struggled to answer every call for rental help, turning away hundreds of people a year seeking rental assistance.
In 2018, for example, he calculated that his organization would have needed $387,000 a year to help everyone seeking help to pay rent.
“That’s our number one volume of calls, is housing,” Dilger said.
Aid donated to Family Promise also is going fast, and it coincided with an uptick in requests for help, said Kat Lilley, the organization’s CEO.
Normally, three to five people a week would approach the agency seeking help. Now, it fields requests from 10 to 15 people a day.
And the longer the pandemic goes on, the more people will need help.
“When you look at all of the organizations that provide homeless prevention services and rental assistance, historically there's never been enough to meet the demand,” Lilley said. “And then we have a pandemic and an influx coming.
“So we’re working as best as we can to keep up, but the reality is that I think we’re all very concerned.”