A mattress, couch and other belongings sit on a snowy front lawn at an affordable housing complex in Del Norte, Colorado, on Jan. 23, 2021. (John McEvoy, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, and before an economic crisis that pushed unemployment to historic levels, Colorado policymakers were already working on plans to equalize the power between landlords and tenants.

Back in 2019, what was dubbed the “year of the renter,” a slate of Democrat-backed bills at the statehouse never materialized. A few new laws were passed to help renters, but the bulk of the agenda stalled. 

Now — after a year in which the state and federal government had to enact eviction moratoriums to keep an unknown number of Coloradans from ending up homeless — tenant advocates are picking up where they left off.  

“Prior to COVID, people were paying more than half of their income toward rent,” said Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, a co-director of 9to5 Colorado. “What COVID did is shined a light on how vulnerable renters were if they went without just one or two paychecks. I don’t think anyone imagined what would happen to have weeks and weeks of unemployment.”

A key goal for the working women’s advocacy group is curbing “predatory” late fees tacked onto rent payments that cause renters to fall even further behind. Other efforts include limiting rent increases to no more than once per year, allowing tenants more time to catch up on payments before the eviction process can begin, and changing court procedures so that renters don’t have to pay in order to make a claim that their home is unsafe. 

Legislation filed before the pandemic, and struck down in a committee hearing last year, would have prohibited landlords from charging late fees until a rent payment was at least 14 days late. The bill also would have capped late fees at $20 or less than 3% of the rent amount. 

The same Democratic lawmakers who ran that bill want to pass more comprehensive legislation this year, hoping that fellow policymakers are swayed by stories of eviction and homelessness brought on by the 2020 economic crisis. 

A large for-rent sign sits on the corner of Dallas Street and E. Montview Boulevard, advertising vacancies in an apartment building on Jan. 27 in Aurora, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The upcoming legislation from Democrats Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, will tackle the daily late fees that some landlords add onto rent, and would prohibit evictions based solely on late fees. 

They also want to crack down on landlords who illegally lock people out of their homes, and make it easier for tenants to seek help in court if they live in unsafe conditions, such as no heat or water, or if there are holes in their roof. The bill, which has not yet been filed, would eliminate the requirement in state law that tenants must post a bond in order to bring such a case. 

Gonzales-Gutierrez, a former child welfare caseworker who once found children living in a mobile home with mold on the ceiling and a giant hole for a front door, has been working on renters’ rights bills for the past two years. Legislation she passed in 2020, along with Gonzales, prohibits landlords from demanding proof of immigration or citizenship status from a tenant. 

Another successful bill, passed in 2019, prevented landlords from charging exorbitant fees to file an apartment rental application. 

The eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programs passed during the pandemic are “bandaids,” while Colorado needs long-term changes in law, Gonzales-Gutierrez said. 

Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver

“We are actually amongst the lowest when it comes to tenant protections,” she said. “We see folks all too often who are being evicted because their dog is barking too loud. Or a barbecue grill is on their front porch. This is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

Under one renter-related bill already introduced this legislative session, which began last week, landlords would have to give 14 days’ notice instead of the currently required 10 days before starting eviction proceedings. 

House Bill 1121, from Rep. Dominique Jackson, also would prohibit landlords from increasing rent more than once per year. 

The Colorado Apartment Association, which advocates for landlords’ rights, counters that the state’s eviction process already takes two or three months, depending on the county. Legislation to extend the timeline will only make it more expensive and unpredictable, said Drew Hamrick, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs. 

“If we are going to encourage people to provide housing to others, we must give them a reasonable mechanism to get the property back,” he said, noting that the association is in talks with the bill sponsors to find compromise. 

Late fees tacked onto rent checks make it harder to catch up

When Melissa Jones’ husband lost his job at a fish company last May, the Denver couple struggled to come up with their $1,075 rent check. 

He was unemployed through September, when he found a part-time job at UPS for half the pay. At the same time, Colorado’s unemployment system was jammed. Like thousands of others, the couple was locked out of the system and didn’t receive a check for more than three months. 

By fall, Jones was late on rent for their one-bedroom apartment on the border of Denver and Aurora. According to the rental agreement, they had to pay 15% in late fees, plus a $50 “posting fee” to cover the cost of the notice stuck to their door. The penalty charges bumped their rent to $1,286. 

It was nearly the end of the month by the time they came up with the money, and then next month’s rent was due two days later.

The couple was able to get back on track when the state came through with unemployment benefits, including back pay for the months that were skipped, but falling behind was stressful and scary for Jones, who has been homeless before. 

“The thought of that instability was freaking me out,” she said. “It makes me anxious.” 

The threat of eviction was all too real because Jones’ 21-year-old daughter was evicted last year after she fell behind on rent and her landlord charged $75 per day for every day the rent was late. She was 10 days behind, and owed $750 on top of her $900 rent, Jones said. 

Coloradans say housing affordability has reached crisis status

Colorado, and later the federal government, placed a moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus pandemic, but many are concerned about what happens when the moratorium is lifted. The policies don’t forgive past-due rent. 

Gov. Jared Polis also signed an order banning fees on late payment of rent during the pandemic. His order placing a moratorium on evictions, which he let expire at the end of the December since a federal order is now in place, required landlords to inform tenants of the moratorium in writing. 

“It puts some guardrails to buy more time,” said Guadarrama Trejo, from the nonprofit 9to5. “Most tenants want to find a solution with their landlord. No one wants to become unhoused, especially now. People are not going to survive in the cold. And we still have a pandemic going on.”

Colorado’s front-line workers during the pandemic, the folks who work in grocery stores, as delivery drivers and in restaurants, make up a large portion of the renters in this state, Guadarrama Trejo said. 

“The front-line workers, those are the same people who are renters who have been struggling,” she said. 

Last spring, the legislature passed a housing assistance bill, allowing Colorado renters to ask for help from a state fund. Colorado also received federal coronavirus aid to help renters stay housed. But that, too, is temporary.

Leading up to the push for more renter-friendly laws, three advocacy groups, including 9to5, helped develop a survey — conducted by Strategies 360 and commissioned by the State Innovation Exchange — that found overwhelming support for such policies. 

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver

The survey of 501 Colorado voters, reached by phone earlier this month, found that 80% support capping how much landlords can charge in late fees and that 70% support a cap of 2.5% of the total rent. Most of those polled said Coloradans should not allow evictions solely on the basis of unpaid late fees, as long as the tenant is keeping up with their base rent. 

More than 80% of respondents said housing affordability in Colorado has gotten worse in recent years, with 70% agreeing it’s a serious problem or even a “crisis.”

This year’s legislative proposals build off of one of the laws passed in 2019, the Residential Tenants Health and Safety Act, that strengthened renters’ rights regarding living conditions. It says landlords are in breach of contract if they fail to provide healthy and safe housing, including any condition that “interferes with the tenant’s life, health or safety.” 

Sen. Gonzales, who lives in an affordable housing unit, said it’s been obvious the last few months that Colorado needs a “clear and transparent process,” one understood by renters and landlords. She’s heard from people who were served eviction notices to appear in court, but did not go because they heard on the news that there was a moratorium on evictions and didn’t realize there is paperwork involved. 

Evictions are “devastating economically, devastating for a family’s stability,” she said. “We want to make the process a bit more fair. 

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, even with a federal moratorium, the fact that there are still people either at risk of eviction or who are navigating eviction court demonstrates the scale of the need that exists.”

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...