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Housing

Colorado’s COVID rent-assistance program is now paying out five times more following changes

Local governments were faster at distributing federal dollars than the state. With the national eviction moratorium over, federal and state improvements have sped up rent payments.

A now-leasing sign spotted in the South Broadway neighborhood of Denver on Aug. 28. 2021. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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A struggling renter’s last hope is now the Emergency Rental Assistance Program following last week’s abrupt end to the national eviction moratorium.

A renter can receive up to 15 months of unpaid back and future rent through ERAP, thanks to two rounds of federal relief packages. But six months after launching, Colorado’s program had paid out just 13.2% of its first round of federal housing funds — and 7.4% of its total allotment as of July 31. 

While local programs offered some Coloradans faster payments, changes made in the past few weeks to the statewide program run by the Department of Local Affairs have sped up the payout after months of backlogs and delays, said Elizabeth Koser, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jared Polis.

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“Approximately 75% of funds that have been approved for ERAP assistance have been paid out” for a total of $60 million as of Aug. 31, Koser said in an email, “with the pace of payment improving significantly.”

Based on U.S. Treasury Department data, that means nearly half was distributed in August. That also gets the state’s ERAP payouts to 24.2% for round one, and 13.6% overall. 

MORE: Colorado has paid out just 7.4% of its federal rent-assistance funds

DOLA switched to a new payment vendor, Bill.com, on Aug. 17 and is now making payments of $5 million per week instead of $1 million, Koser said. 

She also credited changes made last week by the U.S. Treasury to allow self-attestation for  applicants to certify household incomes without having to provide documents, which may be hard to come by if an employer has closed. More than 6,800 applicants were stuck in the state’s ERAP system last week because their applications were missing information. 

One landlord said payment for one of her tenants was finally received early Wednesday to cover seven months of rent unpaid since February. Her tenant applied when ERAP first opened in March.

“I know something was happening because two days ago Bill.com deposited a penny,” said Karen Arnold, who manages townhouse rentals in Denver and Aurora.

Faster payouts often came from local governments

The federal ERAP program provided $46.6 billion of rental assistance nationwide in two rounds — $25 billion from the Consolidated Appropriations Act and $21.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan. Colorado received about $690 million, with $440 million designated for the state to distribute. The rest was split between 11 local governments with more than 200,000 residents.

Local government agencies took their own approach to handling the surge of applicants who lost a job or saw their incomes decline due to COVID-19.

The City of Aurora, which received $11.4 million in its first round of federal funding, had distributed 43.9% of it by July 31. The city let the state administer all but $2 million of the funds because it has just 2.5 staffers (“and one’s a temp,” said Rodney Milton, the city’s community development manager) working with tenants and landlords. Landlords must agree to not evict a tenant for 30 days after receiving payments.

Milton credits Barbara Abbotts, the city’s Home Ownership Assistance Program supervisor.

“She’s dealt a lot with residents and knows how to get them to follow through with any missing documentation. And she has strong relationships with landlords to make sure that they are paid on time,” he said. “She’s able to turn around applications in one to two days where it typically takes a couple weeks because she knows what she’s looking for, she knows the bottlenecks.”

At 55.8%, Larimer County had the highest distribution rate of its first round of funds as of July 31, totaling $9.8 million. The county also keeps track of recipients and payments to residents by ZIP code. As of Aug. 19, Larimer had awarded $6 million to 1,323 households. Fort Collins, the largest city in the county, had the greatest share of participants and received more than half of the payments made so far.

When the city of Colorado Springs, which had paid out 20% of $14.4 million in first round funds by July 31, heard about the backlog, it worked with DOLA to identify local residents who were stuck. Through partners like Pikes Peak United Way, city staff visited applicants in neighborhoods considered to have the most vulnerable populations and offered one-to-one help to fill out forms and get payments on track. 

And when a DOLA rent payment couldn’t come fast enough, the city chipped in, said Catherine Duarte, senior analyst with the city’s community development division.

“In cases where urgency was key and applicants were in danger of eviction before DOLA could act, we were able to use other funds to help tenants stay housed,” she said. “We used various CARES Act funding from our regular programs, like (Community Development Block Grants) and (Emergency Solutions Grants) Homelessness Prevention funds.” 

In Denver, where the city claims one in eight residents is behind on rent, council members on Monday hired The Salvation Army as the fifth nonprofit agency to handle applications. Denver’s program lagged behind the state and other local governments. At the end of July, less than $1 million of its $49 million share of ERAP had been paid out.

Setting up an ERAP program that integrated federal regulations — eligibility is based on those earning no more than 80% of area median income — just wasn’t simple, said Melissa Thate, Denver’s housing stability director.

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“With this being a brand new program, it has been essentially starting from scratch,” Thate said. “In 2020 and 2021, we got $12 million in local and federal funds to serve over 4,400 households. And so thankfully we had funds available in that program to continue serving households while we were working on rolling out (ERAP).”

The five contractors, which include Brothers Redevelopment and the Jewish Family Service of Colorado, were awarded contracts totaling $21.7 million. The organizations can vet applicants and cut checks directly, which expedites the process. To date, Denver has paid out about $2 million, which means half the payments were made in August. A couple hundred applications have been coming in every two weeks, and there’s been no noticeable increase since the reversal of the eviction moratorium, Thate said.

“We’re in a very good place now,” she said. “We’ve also worked with (the nonprofits) to provide cash advances (for) rental assistance payments up front so that they have those resources available to distribute and aren’t having to carry large balances while they wait for reimbursement. We really put them in a place where they’re able to quickly deploy those resources now that the contracts are executed.”

Temporary aid won’t fix systemic issues

Over in Adams County, Maiker Housing Partners, a nonprofit housing authority, has paid out a little more than 50% of its $9 million in federal dollars. The agency said it’s smaller but more agile than the state. It’s still seeing new applicants and paying out about $300,000 a week.  

However, executive director Peter LiFari called the assistance program a Band-Aid that doesn’t address the underlying issue of housing stability. People lose their jobs, then lose their homes and then leave court with an eviction on their record that may prevent them from renting again. LiFari argues that the courts need to step in and address the issue as tenants show up in eviction court fearing they’re about to lose everything. 

“We’re not prioritizing the housing stability of our Coloradans on a systemic policy level,” he said. “The courts need to be an integral element of our housing-stability strategy.”

Signs of apparent eviction in Del Norte, Colorado, January 23, 2021. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned evictions last year because COVID-19 created a public health issue and keeping people in their own homes would limit the spread of the virus. The CDC’s latest order, which would have ended Oct. 3, aimed to prevent evictions in counties experiencing substantial and high levels of transmissions — and that included most of Colorado.

But the ban was rejected last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. In an unsigned opinion, the court said the CDC lacked the authority to reimpose a moratorium. That needed to come from Congress.

Landlord groups fought the moratorium because it prevented some from evicting tenants for not paying rent, and going months without a rent check impacted the owners of rental properties. The Colorado Apartment Association has said rental assistance programs provide rent so eviction bans weren’t necessary. The state’s eviction rates are also about a third to a half lower than in pre-pandemic months, and for the most part, tenants are paying their rents.

“A 97% collection rate in July continues to show us that Colorado residents in need have availed themselves of rental assistance programs, worked with their rental housing providers and paid their rent through the first half of 2021. This continued effort in Colorado is evidence that the system we’ve set up works,” Mark Williams, the association’s executive vice president, said in a statement.

Evictions never stopped, some states continue bans

Even with the ban, landlords could still evict tenants who were a public nuisance, committed criminal acts or used the apartment for unauthorized uses. Managers could choose not to renew a lease and then kick out a tenant who didn’t move out. And they could challenge in court whether a resident lied on their legal declaration that their income declined due to COVID.  

One week after the reversal of the moratorium, local agencies aren’t reporting a noticeable increase in eviction filings. 

But, said Milton with the city of Aurora, the city’s ERAP program has noticed more first-time applicants.

And they’re seeing “people owing (three or more months) but never applied for assistance until the moratorium was lifted,” he said. “Many landlords are encouraging their tenants to apply for the assistance.”

Some states, including California and New Jersey, decided to continue with their existing eviction bans anyway. New York state’s legislature reconvened Wednesday to consider extending its state moratorium, which ends Tuesday, to as far as mid-January, The New York Times reported. 

Colorado’s state legislature isn’t in session. 

Gov. Jared Polis extended an executive order to Sept. 6 to give tenants waiting for ERAP rent checks to get 30 days to make past-due rent payments, instead of the standard 10 days. 

Spokeswoman Koser added, “the governor will consider extending that additional protection if a significant backlog of assistance remains.”

LiFari, from Adams County, wants Polis to go further. And LiFari is backing Vanita Gupta, the U.S. Associate Attorney General who appealed to state chief justices to intervene with a different strategy to keep families housed. 

“The governor’s order has had an impact, and thankfully he did that,” LiFari said. “But he could go further and we need to go further to protect both our residents and our landlords, because right now they’re not symbiotic.”

He suggested that a judge could require a 45-day waiting period after a landlord files to evict, which may give the tenant enough time to apply for ERAP and get rent paid. They could require the landlord to tell the tenant that ERAP exists. 

“It feels like (Polis’ order) probably helped 10% to 25% (but) it’s completely contingent upon the tenant to know this exists and to exercise it,” LiFari said. “Whereas, if we institute this at the court level, the court has all of the resources, they have all the knowledge and they have all the influence. And so why would we do anything other than that when we know that this is available to us? It’s not a real strong policy solution when we have one right in front of us.”

Get help

Renters: Apply or get questions answered at Colorado’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program at cdola.colorado.gov/rental-mortgage-assistance

Call or text 1-888-480-0066 on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., or Saturdays between 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Local governments offering ERAP: 

Adams County
Arapahoe County
Aurora
Boulder County
Colorado Springs
Denver
Douglas County
El Paso County
Jefferson County
Larimer County
Weld County

Need help with an application? Call 2-1-1 and make an appointment with the United Way.

For legal assistance, these organizations provide free legal advice: