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“We have nowhere to go”: Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans at risk of eviction

For one Aurora family, eviction could come as soon as this week. The case against them was filed before Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order pausing evictions went into effect.

Tanisha Diggs and her husband Kwabena Yeboah sort through court documents at their kitchen table on June 17, 2020. The couple and their two sons are facing eviction this week because the rental company said that they violated their lease. But they dispute the claims. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun.)
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Colorado renters will get more help with their rent payments and have an extra 20 days before non-payment of rent leads to eviction under an executive order signed this week by Gov. Jared Polis. But housing advocates say the order isn’t enough to keep thousands of people from being forced from their homes.

“He just delayed things by 20 days,” said Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy who specializes in housing issues. “And so I’m worried about what we’re going to see in the coming months.”

An estimated 16% of Coloradans were considered housing insecure at the beginning of June, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, meaning they either missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time. The survey was launched in April to track how the coronavirus pandemic is influencing households.

Tanisha Diggs and her husband, Kwabena Yeboah, pose for a portrait outside their apartment complex in Aurora with their 14-year-old son on June 17, 2020. The family of four have lived at the complex since 2013, and are facing eviction this week. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun.)

A last-ditch effort at Colorado’s Capitol to provide additional eviction protections during the coronavirus pandemic fell through just days before the session adjourned on Monday. And Polis will not be taking additional action, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

“We believe the current rent and mortgage relief executive order to ensure no late fees, proper notification, and pathways for reasonable repayment plans is the furthest the governor can go pursuant to his current executive powers without legislative action,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis.

In mid-April, several members from both chambers at Colorado’s Capitol started working through a potential bill to try to remedy a handful of housing issues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, including extending the eviction moratorium until October. But the measure disintegrated before it was introduced.

“The landlord lobby is strong in this building,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “And so that amendment didn’t move forward.”

In the final days of the session, House Bill 1410 passed, which will direct $20 million of rental and housing assistance support to the Department of Local Affairs. “But those dollars will be swept up quickly,” Gonzalez said. 

The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, formed in March to provide legal representation for tenants facing eviction, estimated in April that between 300,000 and 400,000 people in Colorado are at risk of losing their homes by September, after local and federal eviction moratoriums and emergency unemployment benefits expire. 

Sam Gilman, a data analyst and co-founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, said that is a conservative estimate because it assumed some people had savings to help cover rent or mortgage payments or had access to credit.

Tanisha Diggs and her 14-year-old son stand in the laundry room of their apartment complex. In 2014, Diggs suffered a concussion when a wooden board over the door of the laundry room fell on her head. “I was off work for a little while because I was having cluster headaches. And I was assigned oxygen therapy for those headaches, but it just never really got any better.” The company paid her medical bills and the matter was settled outside of court, Diggs said. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Gilman said a “looming avalanche of evictions” will get worse when federal enhanced unemployment benefits turn off at the end of July. “That $600 a week that they’re getting on top of Colorado’s unemployment is a lifeline, and enables folks to pay their rent.”

Evictions for lease violations (not missed rent) have already restarted. Regenbogen expects to see a spike in filings in mid-July when evictions for nonpayment of rent can resume, and again at the end of August –– 30 days after the federal CARES Act eviction moratorium expires. 

In May, the U.S. unemployment rate hit 13.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the pandemic began, more than one in six people have filed for unemployment benefits in Colorado. In April, the state’s unemployment rate hit the highest it’s ever reached since tracking began in 1976 at 11.3%.

MORE: Fearing economic uncertainty, residents seek to buy their Boulder County mobile-home park to avoid evictions

“I think you’re going to see things begin to get very bad over the next few months or so. And I would love to be wrong about that,” Regenbogen said. “But I would be willing to bet that without some type of additional policy intervention, we’re going to see some possibly historic rates of eviction in Colorado.”

Facing eviction in the age of the coronavirus pandemic

Fear of eviction has hung over Tanisha Diggs’ head for 20 weeks, since she found a notice hanging on the door of the Aurora apartment where she lives with her husband and sons. “Where are we going to go?” she said. “It’s all I can think about. We have nowhere to go.”

The family has lived at the Sanctuary at Heather Ridge complex since 2013. They are facing eviction this week because the landlord says they violated their lease agreement by being late on their rent. 

“I’ve paid my rent every month, on time, for the last eight years,” said Kwabena Yeboah, Diggs husband of 18 years, as the couple laid out money order receipts signed by their rental property company over the past year. The couple and their teenage sons are expecting to be removed from the premises sometime this week.

Kwabena Yeboah looks out the window of his apartment in Aurora on June 17, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Yeboah currently works at Swedish Medical Center as a floor technician. Even though he is considered an essential employee, his hours have decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, which has strained the family’s finances. 

“We have no reserves,” Diggs said. “Everything that my husband has brought home, we’ve had to spend. The only way we were able to cut any corners is by tapping into the local food bank so that we can try to save a little bit here and a little bit there.”

Diggs and Yeboah couldn’t afford a lawyer when they went to court in March. Their case continued to move forward because it was filed before Gov. Polis’ April 30 executive order pausing eviction proceedings.

MORE: Colorado has paid out more than $2 billion in unemployment benefits since March

“They got us into court stating that we did not pay rent for February, which was untrue. We paid the rent for February, we have a receipt from them from their office stating that it was February’s rent and yet still they were saying that we had back charges that we had not paid and that we were in violation of the lease,” Diggs said.

The couple said they hadn’t signed a new lease agreement since 2017 because they had asked the rental company to address the building’s cockroach infestation. They believe the lease for 2018-19, which included a rent hike, is forged because the signature appears to be copied too precisely. The couple hired a forensic document examiner, Mark Songer, to evaluate the lease and plan to submit his findings during their appeal.

Kwabena Yeboah sorts through his money orders for rent at his kitchen table on June 17, 2020. The owners of their apartment said that the family repeatedly paid rent late, but he disagrees. He said he’s always paid by the 5th of every month and that the rental company takes a day to process it. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Lori Sarconi, the property manager for the Sanctuary at Heather Ridge apartment complex, said she would not comment on specific legal cases without consulting with her lawyers first. 

Diggs said every day her sons, who are 14 and 17, ask her what is going to happen to them. 

“We’ve been displaced before. We’ve been in a shelter before. And they know what it’s like to be homeless. So for them to ask me every day. … It’s been very hard to deal with,” Diggs said. “I’ve had to put on a powerful face so that my kids know that I have it under control. And sometimes you just have to hope that everything will pan out. And sometimes it doesn’t.” 

Housing advocates worry about the strain a flood of evictions will have on the state’s homeless shelters

Rental assistance is the No. 1 request on the state’s 211 information line, though how many requests have been made for help with rent or mortgage assistance is not known, said Alison George, director of housing for Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs.

More than 25% of households in the U.S. may need help making rental payments because of the coronavirus, according to a letter sent to Congress by the National Apartment Association and the National Multifamily Housing Council.

Drew Hamrick, with the Colorado Apartment Association, which advocates for landlords, said his organization has not witnessed the crisis that some are predicting. 

In Colorado, there are about 512,000 rentals in the state, according to Hamrick. And in any given month, there are about 3,000 evictions, he said, adding that so far in June, the number of evictions filed is about 3% of normal. (Part of the reason has to do with the eviction moratorium that remains in place.)

Hamrick said unemployment benefits have expanded, both in amounts and length of time. And there are a lot of grant funds from the CARES Act that are being made available to state and local governments. “It’s taken a while to set up those programs. But that money is still in the pipeline and there is a lot of assistance out there,” he said.

One of the tents at the corner of East 14th Avenue and Washington Street in Denver on May 12, 2020. The camp grew to dozens of tents and as many as 80 people wrapping most of the city block before it was swept in a pre-announced action by the City of Denver on May 20. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

But he said the best relief that the housing industry, and all industries, can get is to allow people to go back to work. 

Still, the fallout from the projected number of evictions has housing advocates worried about the strain a flood of evictions will have on the state’s homeless shelters.

“We are still actively responding to the COVID-19 crisis that we’ve been responding to for the last few months,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. 

Alderman estimates there has been a near doubling of people accessing shelter resources since the coronavirus pandemic began, not to mention the large numbers of people camping outdoors.

“We still have a large population of people accessing these new shelter spaces. We don’t have all the resources we need to get those people into different spaces on a long-term basis,” Alderman said. 

“So the idea that we’re going to start seeing, just in a few weeks, hundreds or potentially thousands of families and individuals that are losing their homes, I have a lot of fear of how we are going to quickly respond to this,” she said. “I don’t know where they are going to go.”

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