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New housing on West Kentucky Avenue at the intersection of South Utica Street sits adjacent to a mobile home and trailer park in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver, CO. January, 17, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

First it was the bed bugs that infested the couch and the roaches scuttling through the kitchen. But the worst was the day the boiler room exploded, sending residents of Kelsey Danna’s apartment complex screaming and running as a gas man shouted at them to get to safety.

The Englewood complex didn’t have heat for two weeks, and the hot water didn’t return for even longer. When the tenants banded together and refused to pay rent that month last fall, they were slapped with eviction notices.

“I was terrified to go back in the house,” said Danna, who was eight months pregnant and had just returned from a walk with her husband when the explosion happened. “I was scared it was going to explode while we were sleeping.”

Horror stories like Danna’s and dozens more from tenants throughout Colorado are propelling a host of changes in state law, which advocates say now is lopsided in favor of landlords. They say evictions are reaching “crisis levels,” with more than 10,000 last year in Littleton and Arapahoe County and about 7,000 in Denver, according to judicial system data.  Property owners, though, warn that the proposals are too much at once and could have the opposite effect than intended: fewer rentals and higher prices.

As the housing market tightened and affordable housing grew scarce, the friction between landlords and tenants was exposed, said Caitlin Finn, attorney and executive director of Colorado Poverty Law Project, which formed a few years ago to help tenants who need pro bono help. Landlords and property owners have long leveraged their interests by forming associations, but it wasn’t until the past two or three years that renters coalesced to advocate for change.

“Tenants don’t have a lot of protection,” said Finn, who worked with a man whose landlord refused to respond after the man’s ceiling crumbled into the living room, exposing insulation and mold. She has heard dozens of stories about people who had an unexpected expense — such as new tires — and then couldn’t make rent, resulting in eviction. “That is a common narrative — losing your house led to everything spiraling out of control.”

A proposal introduced Monday at the state Capitol would end the statewide ban on rent-control ordinances in Colorado, letting cities cap rent increases and force developers to designate a portion of units as affordable housing. Another would give renters more time — up to 10 days from the current three — to pay rent or remedy a lease violation before a landlord can file to evict them.

A third bill would require landlords to provide itemized receipts for how they spend application fees — and return the money if they didn’t run the renter’s credit rating and background check. The point is to cut down on exorbitant application fees — the largest mentioned at the legislature this year was $775 — that landlords can now keep even when they don’t rent to the applicant.

The list continues. Another proposal gives renters more power to complain about living conditions — broken appliances, leaky ceilings, mice — without fear of eviction retaliation. Tenants could deduct one or more rent payments when landlords fail to provide a safe apartment with working appliances or utilities, a provision that would have helped renters like those at Danna’s apartment complex. One more bill would establish a legal defense fund so that low-income renters facing eviction could get free legal help to defend themselves in court.

Clearly, it’s the Year of the Renter.

Cranes rise over Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Landlords say too much, too fast could worsen housing crisis

Some of the bills have come up before, but failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. Backers of the rent-control measure didn’t even bother under previous political climates, though, waiting until this year — when Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office — to push for lift of the rent-control ban.

“We’re holding the legislators accountable to what they said they were going to do,” said Dre Chiriboga-Flor, co-director of 9to5, an organization that advocates for affordable housing. She noted that many lawmakers elected last year included affordable housing and tenant law reform in their platforms. “Just like health care, just like food, just like water, housing is a basic necessity. But our politics really don’t speak to that at all.”

But owners of rental properties are warning lawmakers that a long list of changes in one year could make the affordable housing crunch worse.

Landlords, especially those who own one or two properties, might determine it’s no longer worth it — especially if cities enact rent control, eviction takes longer when tenants don’t pay, and home owners are on the hook to repair anything considered “materially dangerous or hazardous to the tenant’s life, health or safety,” as the legislation on habitable housing states, said Nancy Burke, vice president of government and community affairs for the 2,000-member Colorado Apartment Association.

“They are going to get out of the business — that’s how rent is going to go up,” she said.

While apartment complex owners might have a financial cushion to handle late rent payments, small-time landlords are often counting on the rent to pay the mortgage. “The supply that has been there with all these little guys, that is going to go away,” she said.

Jim Clark, executive director of the Investment Community of the Rockies in Centennial, which has about 700 members, said he lost a house he owned in Aurora to foreclosure because his tenants were not paying their rent. “That home would have been worth a lot of money to me today,” he told lawmakers, testifying in opposition to a bill that would give renters 10 days instead of just three to pay the rent before eviction proceedings can begin.

Bills would balance power, but let cities have final say

Still, lawmakers say it’s time to even the playing field and give tenants more rights.

“Right now, it is completely legal for a landlord to double the rent from one day to the next,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who is sponsoring a bill to lift the ban on rent-control ordinances. “And if a municipality were to try to set limits on those types of extreme rent increases, that’s actually illegal to do.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, speaks to a reporter at the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Rent-control ordinances have been prohibited by state law since 1981. In 2000, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down Telluride’s plan to force developers to create affordable housing for rent, saying that would qualify as rent control. The current legislation doesn’t propose a statewide rent cap — it would allow cities to make their choices.

“We recognize that the solution on the east side of Sheridan may be very different than the solution on the west side of Sheridan,” said Gonzales, who said she paid $525 per month in the early 2000s for a one-bedroom apartment on a block where units now go for $2,000 per month. “Or the decision in Aurora may look very different than the solution in Aspen. And that’s fine, but we believe that municipalities should have a full set of tools in their toolbox to address this affordable housing crisis that so many Coloradans are struggling through.”

In Denver, city leaders have tried to encourage developers to incorporate affordable housing units in new construction, but because of the state ban on rent-control, the policy lacked teeth. Instead of building the units, developers more often chose to pay a fine.

Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village who is sponsoring a bill that gives tenants more protection if they complain about poor living conditions, said similar legislation in previous years was assigned to “kill committees” but is now passing with bipartisan support.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, speaks at the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

He was knocking on doors, campaigning, last October when he learned that the boiler room exploded at the Golden Nugget Apartments in his district.

“That was right before the coldest weekend of the year,” he said. “The problem is that those people needed coverage not only on network TV, they needed the assistance of a state representative to just get heat. There’s a lot of folks to whom this happens that they don’t think to call their state representative or their state senator.”

“Any other product in the state, when you buy it, if it’s not what it is that was advertised to be, you get your money back,” he said. “Rent should be the same way. If you are living somewhere without heat or hot water, you shouldn’t have to pay rent for that.”

“Shocking” number of evictions in Colorado

The number of evictions in Colorado in recent years has alarmed policymakers, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates for low-income people. It’s not just a Denver problem: There were 7,171 evictions in El Paso last year; 4,345 in Jefferson County; 203 in Montrose County; and 126 in Morgan County.

“I’m shocked by that number. It’s very alarming,” said Jack Regenbogen, an attorney and policy advocate at The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which helped draft some of this year’s legislation. “It’s a real crisis. I know that term gets used a lot lately, but I don’t think it’s overstretching to say Colorado is facing an eviction crisis.”

Click here to see this chart in fullscreen.

The center reviewed 93,000 eviction cases in Denver County over several years and found that most of the filings claimed past-due rent, and often for small amounts. The median was about $250 and the lowest was just $4. The 2017 research also found people were far more likely to get evicted if they did not have an attorney, and they had an attorney only 1 percent of the time, according to the report, titled Facing Eviction Alone.

Regenbogen said giving tenants more time to rectify late payments or lease violations — such as noise problems or Christmas lights left up too long — would be a “game-changer.”

“If I get served a rent demand on a Friday, I have only Monday to seek emergency funds from a nonprofit or go to the bank,” he said.

Melissa Jones and her family got an eviction notice in 2010 and had to move within three days from a Westminster apartment over a noise complaint. She admits they were loud, but says it was because her nephew, who has mental health issues and hallucinations, had an outburst.

Jones didn’t have enough money for a deposit on a new apartment, so her choices were to live in her car or move in with a boyfriend. She chose the boyfriend, and calls it the “worst mistake” of her life. The man was abusive and often locked her out of the house, forcing her to sleep outdoors.

If she had had more time before eviction proceedings began, as one of the laws is proposing, Jones believes she could have gotten another paycheck before moving out and been able to find her own place. “I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said.

Compared with other states, Colorado’s laws on eviction give tenants less time to respond before they are kicked out, according to Colorado Center on Law and Policy research. Twenty-eight states give renters more time to remedy a rent payment violation than Colorado and 36 more states give renters more time for a lease violation.

Groups advocating for tenants have failed to make much political progress in previous years, but this year is different. “I think traditionally lawmakers tend to be landlords more often than they are renters,” Regenbogen said. “That may distort perceptions.”

Denver alone has about 20,000 vacant, high-end apartments, nearly enough to house the estimated 27,000 people who are homeless in Colorado, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

“We’re really not trying to tip the scales dramatically in the other direction. We are all about balancing the scale,” said Aubrey Hasvold, advocacy program manager for the coalition and leader of a newly formed group called the Renters’ Rights Roundtable.

For Danna, who moved in with her parents after the boiler room explosion at the Golden Nugget, the experience has left her nervous about renting again. “The landlord has much more power than the tenant does,” she said. “It’s very sad for society.”

Click here to see this chart in fullscreen.

Rent-focused bills at the legislature

Senate Bill 225

“Authorize Local Governments To Stabilize Rent”

The measure would allow local governments to enact rent-stabilization ordinances for private property, which are currently prohibited under Colorado law.

House Bill 1118

“Time Period to Cure Lease Violation”

Requires a landlord to give a tenant 10 days — instead of the current three days — to pay overdue rent or fix a lease violation before the landlord can start eviction proceedings.

House Bill 1170

“The Safe and Healthy Homes Act”

Gives renters more recourse when a landlord will not respond to complaints about poor living conditions. Strengthens law to say apartments must have working appliances, must be free of mold “associated with dampness,” and must provide living conditions that are not “materially dangerous or hazardous to the tenant’s life, health or safety.”

House Bill 1106

Rental Application Fees

Prohibits landlords from charging a rental application fee unless the landlord uses the entire amount to process the application — running background checks, checking references. The landlord is required to provide an itemized description of the fee and make a good-faith effort to return the portion of the fee not spent.

Also, a landlord must not consider rental or credit history more than seven years old. They must not consider an arrest record more than five years old. Exceptions include homicide, sex offenses and cooking methamphetamine.

Senate Bill 180

Eviction Legal Defense Fund

Creates a fund to award grants to nonprofit organizations that will provide legal services to low-income people who are threatened with eviction.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo