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Coloradans already struggling to afford housing say coronavirus has made their situation worse

Renters were already spending more of their income on housing than is recommended. Now they are cutting back on food and health care to stay in their homes, a new survey says.

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Elizabeth Zacarias and her husband owned their own mobile home for 10 years, renting a slice of property in the Denver Meadows RV Park in Aurora.

Amid a battle over whether the owner could close the park for redevelopment, rent went up periodically. In one year, rent increased three times, Zacarias said, in Spanish through a translator, to $1,080 a month from $700.

It was more than they could handle. Zacarias, who was fighting the park’s closure, and her husband were evicted in December 2017, and joined the thousands of Coloradans who worry about where they are going to live each year. 

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Housing instability has been a persistent problem in the United States, with Black and Latino Americans and renters disproportionately impacted. It’s exacerbated as the cost of living and rent rises, but wages haven’t grown enough to keep up. And it’s only grown worse during a pandemic economy that is shedding jobs. 

And there are serious impacts both on people’s finances and their mental and physical health, said Carmen Medrano, executive director for United for a New Economy

UNE, as well as two other housing and economic justice groups, 9to5 Colorado and Human Impact Partners, released a survey Wednesday highlighting the effects of evictions and housing insecurity on Colorado renters. 

“What our survey found, and what the coronavirus pandemic further underscores, is large and unpredictable rent increases leads to negative outcomes and instability,” said Medrano during a news conference Wednesday. “It means families cut back on spending on food and health care to maintain safe housing. And the inability to make rent consistently leads to chronic stress, which makes many underlying health conditions worse.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

When Zacarias and her husband were evicted, it damaged her credit score and made it hard for her to get approved for a rental. They recouped just a quarter of what she spent buying the home, and struggled to regain financial footing to find a permanent home. 

She now rents a home with her parents and brother’s family, who were also forced to leave the mobile home park. 

The new house is almost twice as much as Zacarias paid in rent at Denver Meadows. And during the pandemic, most of the household haven’t been able to find enough work. Her mother, who sold home-cooked Mexican food on Sundays in Commerce City, hasn’t been able to return. Gigs have dried up for Zacarias and her husband, who work in construction installing windows. 

And now their current landlord doesn’t want to renew their lease, she said, erasing the stability she’s worked to regain. 

“I’m scared of being evicted again,” Zacarias said. “I lost so much the first time…and I don’t know what we’re going to do if we’re evicted again.”

More: Colorado has money to help struggling renters, but some landlords won’t play ball

According to a 2019 survey by the Colorado Health Institute, 360,000 Coloradans worried about having stable housing in the next two months, and the pandemic has only put more pressure on struggling families. Renters, who make up a third of Coloradans, also bear the brunt of these problems, with 16.3% reporting housing instability compared to 2.4% of homeowners, according to the same survey. 

The pandemic has only introduced new extremes of instability, said Lili Farhang, co-director of Human Impact Partners.

“This is an urgent national issue. It’s been urgent for a very long time and the coronavirus pandemic has shown the need for greater housing protections all over the county, particularly in more expensive markets,” said Farhang.

Survey respondents — 212 low- and moderate-income renters in the Denver metro area — reported average rent increases of $113 a month, with some reporting increases as high as $453 a month. 

The survey report also cites data showing just over half of Colorado renters are overburdened by rent costs, meaning they pay a large share of their income toward rent. About 24% of all renters pay more than 30% of their income toward housing, while 27% spent more than 50%, according to data from the 2018 American Community Survey. 

Black and Latino renters are particularly overburdened by high rent, according to the report, with an estimated 54% of Black renters and 58% of Latino renters spending large portions of their income on housing costs. 

And when housing costs rise, renters often cut elsewhere to make ends meet. 

A home with a for sale sign in front of it in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Two-thirds of respondents also said they have cut spending on basic needs like food or health care at some point in the last year to make rent or utility payments.

“Stable housing, and having control over when and why you have to move…supports mental health, students’ educational outcomes, and it strengthens relationships between residents,” Farhang added. 

The groups are also again pushing to end Colorado’s statewide ban on local jurisdictions regulating the rental market, which has stood in the way of efforts to pass local rent control measures since it was enacted in 1981. 

The law has been reconsidered periodically since then, with the most recent attempt to repeal it dying in the state Senate in April. 

“Knowing that I can pay the rent and my landlord can’t increase it at their convenience would allow me to plan for my future,” said Zacarias. “Right now we’re in a precarious situation.”

Housing inequities have also made people more vulnerable to coronavirus, said Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson, who pointed to crowded and expensive rental housing as one reason why coronavirus has boomed in Summit County’s Latino neighborhoods.

“These people are packed, packed into the rental housing they can still find available,” Davidson said at the press conference. “There was no way they could protect themselves given the kind of living situations they are in.” 

The report also cites chronic stress as causing significant mental and physical health problems for renters, with 3 out of 5 survey respondents who faced rent increases reporting they felt their difficulties were “piling up too high to overcome” during the past month. 

“All of us are stressed at acute moments, you’re accumulating a lot of stress in your body, but it’s when our bodies can’t get a break we experience health impacts that are harmful,” said Farhang. “In the long run, it can lead to heart disease and hypertension.”

Zacarias was over-stressed and overworked in the years following her eviction, suffering from constant headaches. She also had to work more in her job installing windows to recover financially, and constantly felt tired and stressed. 

“I just had to decide whether I was going to take care of my health, or my family. So I had to take care of my family,” she said. 


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