Eviction filings in Colorado have risen since Jan. 1, an increase lawyers and advocates say was triggered by Gov. Jared Polis' decision not to renew a state moratorium — and exacerbated by an overwhelmed housing assistance program.
Since letting his near-total ban expire Dec. 31, Polis has leaned upon a federal moratorium that advocates say is less of a shield and more of a colander. While it stops landlords from evicting tenants who are behind on rent because of the pandemic, the order still allows landlords to proceed right up to the point where those tenants are physically removed. What's more, it also allows landlords to seek evictions for tenants whose lease has expired, a tactic advocates and lawyers say can be used to get rid of people behind on their rent.
"It's really hurting people, and particularly people who are already living on the margins and suffering greatly the impacts of COVID," said Kinsey Hasstedt, the state and local policy director with Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing. "We're very concerned."
Once Polis's order expired, evictions across the state increased. The jump was sharpest in Denver and El Paso counties. In the capital city there were nearly more filings in January than there were in October, November and December combined. In El Paso County 528 eviction proceedings were filed in January and February. In the proceeding two months, there had been 101.
Those working with landlords and in the housing industry have been quick to point out that eviction filings now, even amid the increase, are still far below pre-pandemic levels. In El Paso County, for instance, there were nearly as many eviction proceedings filed in the first two months of 2020 as there were the rest of the year.
"In a state of 5.8 million people, only 1,381 evictions were filed in January (compared to 3,336 in January the year before), and only 189 evictions had been filed statewide through February 15 (compared to 640 the year before)," said Drew Hamrick, a senior vice president for the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. "Evictions filings are not above normal; eviction filings are far below normal levels."
Still, advocates warn that Colorado risks driving more people into evictions at a time when the state is beginning to look toward the end of the pandemic. According to a mid-February survey conducted by the Census Bureau, more than one in four adult Coloradans said they're behind on their rent or mortgage and are at risk of eviction or foreclosure.
"Yes, there are Coloradan renters who are satisfying their obligations," said Peter LiFari, the executive director of Maiker Housing Partners. "But we have to be cognizant that we were in crisis mode before COVID; it just wasn't visible."
He and Hasstedt said that many renters have exhausted their backup options, like savings and credit cards. That raises the risk of renters spiraling, first by moving from place to place, then in with friends, then into their cars and finally onto the streets.
Because the federal order blocks landlords only from evicting tenants on the basis of unpaid rent caused by the pandemic, the lack of a broader state moratorium allows cases to slip through. Heather Hicks, an attorney who represents low-income tenants in Colorado Springs, said many of the cases she sees are now cases that seek to evict a tenant based on their lease ending.
That way, she said, landlords can seek to evict tenants who rent month-to-month and are also behind on their payments. She said she was aware of one instance where the landlord sought to have a tenant evicted for a "substantial violation" — often reserved for people who violate their leases through some illegal activity — but listed the violation as nonpayment of rent.
"A lot of the notice-to-quit cases are where the tenant does owe the landlord anywhere from $2,000 to — the highest I've seen is $17,000, $18,000," she said.
"They just owe a lot of money."
The situation is further exacerbated by the sluggish distribution of aid from the state's Emergency Housing Assistance Program. At the end of December, there had been roughly 2,000 applicants for aid. By the end of February, that had ballooned to more than 13,000. More than $48 million in aid has been requested in 2021 alone.
Of the more than 11,000 2021 applications, fewer than 1,200 have been approved, according to data published by the Department of Local Affairs. Less than 10% of money requested by tenants this year has been doled out.
Brett McPherson, a spokesman for the Department of Local Affairs, said the agency "quickly became overloaded" with requests and that it was now working with an outside contractor to expedite the process. He said some applications are six to eight weeks old.
"The maximum turnaround once they get caught up should be about two weeks, but often less," he wrote in an email. "It is worth noting there has never been a program of this size, funding this scope of need in the history of housing assistance in Colorado."
Hicks and Megan O'Byrne, an attorney working in Denver, said the delay in receiving funds meant that tenants weren't being approved until after they'd already faced an eviction judgement, which in turn leaves a "scarlet letter" on those people's records that makes it harder to rent in the future. Many landlords are willing to negotiate and wait. Others aren't.
One woman. who appeared in El Paso County court for an eviction proceeding earlier this week. asked the judge if she could delay the decision so she could have a better chance of finding a new place to stay.
Polis has defended his decision not to renew his eviction moratorium by pointing to the federal block. But not only does that moratorium not cover all eviction possibilities, it's facing a stiff legal challenge. A court in Texas recently threw out the moratorium; the Department of Justice has appealed the decision, and the order remains in effect for now. Even if it survives that court battle, it's set to expire at the end of March.
Hasstedt, of Enterprise Community Partners, said that even if the federal moratorium stays in place, it's not good enough. She and others continued to call on Polis to reinstate his order.
Asked why Polis hadn't renewed his order and what information he was using to inform that decision, his spokesman, Conor Cahill, said that "Colorado has received or allocated over $340 million to housing and direct assistance for our residents."
"The administration is carefully monitoring Colorado’s housing situation and will continue to support efforts that prevent a spike in evictions," he wrote.
"I think the governor has been public that now that the legislature is back in session, it's time for legislators to take up the mantle," she said. "I think it certainly is incumbent on state policymakers at all levels to respond to the needs of Colorado right now. But there's so much back and forth about what policies and protections are in place. Then this confusion we see play out. It's resulting in more people losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic."