Federal and state funding has helped thousands of Coloradans pay their monthly rent or mortgage bills during the pandemic, and in turn, helped nearly 3,000 landlords get their own bills paid.
But while there’s cash assistance available to both, the program heavily relies on landlords — and if landlords are unwilling to participate, renters are out of luck.
That’s left Lucy Guereca and her family reeling this month.
Her husband’s job in construction has had reduced hours and wages and ended for three months as the pandemic slogged on. The family of four relied on the kindness of strangers to pay rent for their space at Elevado Estates mobile home park near Arvada (“It even comes before food,” she said). But faced with a 10% rent hike in December, Guereca said they had only half the $1,003 payment — after eight years of dutifully paying the rent each month. Their landlord has already sent her papers about late fees that kick in Jan. 1.
Through allies, Guereca asked the park’s landlord to apply for rent assistance from the state.
“The response of the property manager, she said no, that she wasn’t going to apply for this because she didn’t want to have any issues,” Guereca said in Spanish through a translator from 9to5 Colorado, an organization that advocates on behalf of working families.
“I feel discouraged because when I emailed them to ask them to please stop the rent increase their response was, ‘If you can’t pay, we’ll help you sell your home,’ which seems like such a cruel response to me,” said Guereca, who is also a member of 9to5. “It took so much sacrifice for me, for us, to buy our home. But it still doesn’t feel like a security because we have to pay the lot rent and we can’t afford to pay it right now.”
Elevado Estates’ property owners at Skyline Real Estate in Beverly Hills, California, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Most landlords appear willing to work with their tenants to get rents paid. Landlords working through the state-funded Property Owner Preservation Program have used about 80% of money set aside for rental assistance. A second one for tenants, called the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, is open to renters and homeowners. But whether a tenant or landlord applies, the money is paid directly to the landlord.
For landlords who don’t participate, reasons range from not knowing about it or thinking it’s more trouble than it’s worth or they just want to get rid of the tenant, according to interviews with organizations that represent both landlords and tenants.
“The vast majority of small operators and large operators are interested in money, they want to pay their mortgages, they want to work with their tenants and rental assistance really does a good job of addressing the underlying problem,” said Zach Neumann, a lawyer who helped start the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado.
“I do think you have a very small subsegment of landlords who are unwilling to take any money,” he said. “They want full payment, they want it on time. And they’re not willing to negotiate or settle these deals, and those are really the problematic cases. And in a situation like this, Old Testament judgment just really doesn’t address the moment we’re in.”
Alison George, the state director of housing in the Department of Local Affairs, said her agency, has “absolutely” heard from tenants about their landlords refusing to apply.
But that’s why there are two programs, she added.
“We’re trying to prevent people from falling through the cracks as much as we can,” George said. “And that’s why you have to have different programs that operate in different ways that meet the needs of consumers.”
Request for rent help doubled
The number of households asking for rent or mortgage help from the state programs has doubled in the past month.
Prior to November, the division was receiving between $1.2 million to $1.5 million worth of requests a week, George said.
“Since the beginning of November, we’ve been receiving $2.5 million and (for the week of Dec. 6), it was almost $2.8 million,” she said.
There are a number of reasons for the increase. This is month nine of the pandemic and those struggling have likely depleted their savings. Out-of-work Coloradans are trying to survive on unemployment benefits that are set to expire the day after Christmas. There’s also the looming end to eviction moratoriums. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium ends Dec. 31, while Gov. Jared Polis’ order ends Dec. 20, though it’s been extended in the past.
“There are so many factors that are all coming in to show this doubling of our demands of the program,” George said.
Colorado’s two pandemic housing programs started after state legislators passed the COVID-19-related Housing Assistance bill in June. The programs were funded with $20 million from the state’s share of federal CARES Act dollars.
The payments have helped 17,350 households get their monthly rents, and sometimes multiple months, paid, as of the latest data from Dec. 11.
In its special session earlier this month, the legislature approved another $54 million to replenish for the programs. Those funds arrived this week, according to the state Division of Housing.
Thanks to the new state funding plus additional aid from community organizations, there should be no pause in getting benefits out, George said.
But some people who have been struggling for months are only now asking for help, said Kristen Baluyot, Salvation Army’s Denver metro social services director.
“We’re working with people who are six months behind in rent, five months behind in rent,” she said. “It’s an easy thing for us to spend $20,000 in a day to keep families housed, which is insane. We’ve never paid that much to keep people in housing.”
The Salvation Army has helped 1,000 households get rents paid with state money, plus another 400 families through charitable aid. While paying $10,000, $15,000 a pop for back and current rent is much more than the program has ever handled before, it’s worth it, she added.
“It’s much cheaper to keep people housed than to let them lose their homes and have to start all over again,” she said. “It’s much better for the economy, for our society and for the children in that household.”
How it works for landlords
For landlords, joining the Property Owners Preservation program is relatively easy. After getting verified by the state, landlords can apply online on behalf of their struggling tenants — and they can apply in bulk.
“Landlords can apply for one person, one household or they can apply for 20, 30 households all at the same time. So, of course, when you’re applying for multiple people, the process is much faster,” said Alison George, the state director of housing in the Department of Local Affairs.
Approximately, 2,856 landlords are registered for the POP program.
The program has been a godsend for landlords trying to collect rent from tenants who’ve hit hard times in the pandemic, said Drew Hamrick, general counsel and senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. While there was skepticism initially, that’s not the case anymore.
“When it first rolled out back in, really, August is when people were talking about it, there were a lot of questions and concerns about how is the program going to work, how many strings are going to be attached, is the red tape going to be difficult to deal with,” Hamrick said. “And none of those things have come to pass. Our members widely used the program.”
There are qualification limitations. Rents must be no more than 100% of average rents in the area (here’s a chart). The maximum rent to qualify in Denver is $2,250 for a two-bedroom apartment. About 800 applications have been denied, according to the Division of Housing, but that’s often due to duplicate applications or the program didn’t fit the landlord.
Hamrick’s not sure why some landlords wouldn’t want to use the program to help get rents paid. The state apartment association supports it fully, he said.
“Frankly, the program has been so successful we’ve had calls from other states to get information about how DOLA administers the program and how they can replicate it in their states,” Hamrick said. “The amount of red tape you go through is almost the same for one unit as it would be for 200 units. Once you’re in the system, you’re largely replicating (the process).”
How it works for renters
But for renters, it’s not as simple.
To apply to the state’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program, individuals must go through a local agency, such as the Salvation Army, which works with residents from every ZIP code in Colorado. The organizations verify income, the amount of rent and several other things.
For the Salvation Army, it starts with a phone call (855-768-7977) during office hours, and you can’t leave a voicemail because “We literally had one staff person dedicated to listening to voicemails and it was essentially a waste of their time” when they could be handling cases,” said Baluyot, the nonprofit’s metro Denver social services director.
By cases, Baluyot is talking about the 400-and-counting households on the current waitlist, though the wait isn’t due to the lack of funds. It’s the lack of staff (it’s hiring). Salvation Army case managers must screen candidates, verify lease agreements, see proof of loss of income and find out how much is owed. They also need the landlord’s signature and a copy of the owner’s W-9 tax form to ensure checks go to the rightful property owner.
“Some landlords are not willing to do this, and if they’re not willing to do it, we can’t help them, that client, which is heartbreaking,” Baluyot said.
They’ve also run into cases where landlords are unfamiliar with the program or feel that participation is a violation of their privacy.
“And we also do have landlords who don’t want the rent paid because they want to be able to evict this person as soon as they can,” Baluyot said. “We have had a few times where we have paid up and then the landlord still proceeds to evict. I know there’s an eviction moratorium, but there are exceptions to this moratorium so it’s not a complete blanket of pausing evictions. If a landlord is going to be selling their property, that would be a good reason. If someone’s lease is up, they simply can choose not to renew the lease.”
Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, the associate state director of 9to5 Colorado, has been working with Guereca and the Elevado Estates community since October. They set up a video call between residents and Mike Yamin, one of the partners in the mobile home’s ownership group.
While Yamin seemed willing to consider delaying the rent hike in December, Trejo said it didn’t happen. But it also was strange that the company wasn’t interested in applying for rent on behalf of the residents. In the meantime, 9to5 is organizing an effort to ask the landlords again to reconsider the rent hike.
Trejo said the program for tenants is less immediate to help tenants right away. And it makes some residents in the largely Hispanic community fearful, even though the program meets Fair Housing requirements and doesn’t ask citizenship status.
“I know I’m not the only one in my community who’s going through this,” said Guereca, as Trejo translated. “I fear that there are other neighbors who are even having a worse time and are going through something worse. I know of at least one neighbor who wasn’t able to pay rent for three months until an organization was able to help them pay and they were really worried about being evicted.”
George, with the state division of housing, said the agency is trying to make it easier for tenants by creating an online portal for tenants to apply instead of having to call and reach a human. But both options will be available.
“We don’t want to take that away because we do believe that some people do need that one-on-one attention,” George said. “But what we want to do to expedite that entire process, we’re creating an online portal, similar to what the landlords are doing.”
The agency also is in the process of hiring a consultant to build a tool to work on the backlog of applicants and expedite the delivery of funds. Consumers can get many questions answered online at ColoradoHoustingConnects.org, which is also funded by the state.
And there are other resources available to get rents paid, including the Colorado Apartment Association’s Resident Relief Foundation, which has no income limits but prioritizes tenants with a positive rent history. The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project has a small aid program to help tenants pay not just the current rent, but back and future rent.
“The more pathways you have to money, the faster you can disperse it,” said Neumann, with the Eviction Defense Project. “In general the more opportunities and application types you have, the better.”
Need rent assistance?
Emergency Housing Assistance Program — State funded program for tenants and homeowners who need financial help during the pandemic. >> cdola.colorado.gov/rental-mortgage-assistance
Property Owner Preservation (POP) program — State-funded program for landlords to apply for rent on behalf of their tenants. >> cdola.colorado.gov/rental-mortgage-assistance
Colorado Housing Connects — A state-funded resource for renters and landlords. >> coloradohousingconnects.org
Resident Relief Foundation — Funded by the Colorado Apartment Association, Coloradans with a good rental history but have lost a job due to COVID, other income loss or illness are encouraged to apply. >> aamdhq.org/covid-19-resident-relief
Housing Now — Salvation Army’s housing program assist those who face the loss of their housing or are already homeless. >> housingnow.salvationarmy.org/housing_now_intermountain
2-1-1 Colorado — Call 2-1-1 or visit the non-profit-run site to get help with housing, food, utility bills and more within your region. >> 211colorado.org