Marlis Sneed lived in a dilapidated apartment for nearly five years at the Summit View Inn, an extended stay motel on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora where tenants paid rent daily or weekly.
Wires hung from her ceiling and protruded from outlets in the wall. Sneed’s mattress was ripped and her walls were cracked with chunks missing. Fans in the kitchen and bathroom didn’t work and lights flickered, sometimes conking out completely. There were frequent cockroach, mouse and bed bug infestations in the 95-unit motel, she told her lawyers.
But just when Sneed thought her housing situation could get no worse, it did.
On Oct. 2, armed private security guards hired by her landlord, a company specializing in flipping distressed real estate, arrived at the Summit View Inn. Guards and building management employees went door to door demanding that all residents leave. For two days, people frantically packed their belongings, as guards and Summit View Inn staff hovered, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Arapahoe County District Court by The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project filed the lawsuit with nonprofit 9to5 Colorado’s Housing Justice Program.
Families were not given enough time to gather their belongings and many lost valuable possessions including clothes, passports, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, Social Security cards, important medications, furniture and family heirlooms, the lawsuit said.
Armed guards remained at the property and locked apartment doors as residents left. On Nov. 4, an attorney called the Summit View Inn to request the immediate return of residents’ possessions, but an employee there said their belongings had already been destroyed, according to the lawsuit.
“This is the most egregious and mass-scale unlawful eviction I have personally ever learned of,” said Rebecca Cohn, a staff attorney for The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said.
Amen Corner, also known as the VareCo, the owner and manager of the Summit View Inn, is named as a defendant.
The lawsuit claims the landlord did not follow the proper court process to legally evict the tenants, who only received written notice of the eviction on Sept. 14.
Typically, the eviction process includes several steps that, after an initial notice is given, mostly take place in court: A landlord would send a written notice to notify the resident of their eviction. If the resident had not left the property or corrected the problem by the time the notice period had elapsed, the landlord would file a lawsuit in court. The tenant would file their response, either admitting or denying the allegations. There would be a trial and if the landlord won, a court order would be issued and only then would the county sheriff show up to evict the tenant, according to the Colorado Forcible Entry and Detainer Law.
“But this process ended with the notice,” Cohn said. “Nothing else that is required happened after that.”
The forcible entry and detainer law protects people living in a hotel or motel for longer than 30 days, such as the residents living at the Summit View Inn, according to the lawsuit.
Terrance Doyle, founder and managing partner of the VareCo, on Friday said he had not been served and did not know anything about the lawsuit.
“So I have no comment,” he said by phone. “I’m sorry. I have no idea.”
Many tenants became homeless after they were evicted, moving into congregate shelters, their cars or temporary hotel rooms, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status for the tenants, names three former residents as main plaintiffs: Sneed, Darrell Rogers and Denisse Marshall, all of whom became homeless after their eviction.
About 20 residents were interviewed by attorneys for information shared in the lawsuit, attorneys said. Those who lost their Social Security cards and other ID are now struggling to apply for housing and jobs.
Attorneys are asking the court to immediately allow residents to retrieve any of their belongings that were left inside the apartments when they rushed out, and grant a temporary restraining order to stop the landlord from destroying any more of their property, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers are asking the court to require that the VareCo return late fees that were collected illegally from tenants who were penalized $5 if they paid rent late after 11 a.m., and another $10, if rent was still not paid by 3 p.m. that same day. These fees were unreasonable and were not fair estimates of the damages the landlord suffered, according to the lawsuit.
If rent was not paid by 11 a.m. on a given day, property managers would place a metal device on the resident’s door, blocking access to the keyhole, so that they could not get in until they paid the fees, a practice many tenants called “booting.”
Denisse Marshall and her family were locked out of their apartment for a week after their door was booted, the lawsuit says.
“Based on Colorado law, we’re arguing that that’s not a lawful charge and that they need to give all that money back, essentially, plus interest, for as long as they have been the owners of this property,” Cohn, the lead attorney, said.
If the judge agrees the plaintiffs were illegally evicted, each former resident included in the lawsuit could also receive three times their monthly rent, or $5,000, whichever is greater, plus attorney’s fees and other money from the court, the lawsuit says. Sneed paid $54.99 per day, which equals $384.93 per week or $20,071.35 per year, for rent. The lawsuit does not specify whether other residents paid the same amount for their units.
VareCo describes itself as a real estate investment firm that purchases “distressed properties” in Denver and Des Moines, Iowa. It owns more than 750 apartments, part of a portfolio the company’s website says is valued at $80 million.
VareCo purchases a property, finds new homes for all the tenants, renovates the property and re-rents the rehabbed complex to new residents at or above market-rate rents, according to a YouTube video featuring Doyle.
VareCo purchased The Summit View Inn on Feb. 14, 2020, just before the pandemic, for more than $5 million. In a video posted to Instagram, Doyle said the company plans to spend another $5 million renovating the complex, just west of the Anschutz Medical Campus, before selling it for $15 million. The Summit View Inn rehabilitation represents VareCo’s largest purchase and construction project yet, one that will “hopefully” yield its biggest ever return on investment, according to the video.
A Colorado Sun photographer who traveled to the complex Friday afternoon to take pictures saw construction equipment at the site.
There’s a disconnect between the stated practice in the videos and how business was conducted for Summit View Inn residents, said Zach Neumann, co-founder and executive director for the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Summit View Inn residents each received an eviction notice on their doors on Sept. 14, around the same time the landlord had hired a private security firm to patrol the property. Guards regularly carried guns, according to the lawsuit.
The notices posted on residents’ doors said their right to live at the motel had ended on Oct. 28 at 11 a.m. and that they had to leave no later than 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 2, according to a photo of the notice embedded in the lawsuit.
“Obviously, that’s confusing because Oct. 2 is before Oct. 28,” Cohn said. “So many of them were really confused and many believed that they had until Oct. 28 to vacate.”
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and the East Colfax Community Collective were notified soon after the armed guards showed up to evict residents.
Kelsey Clark, director of special projects for the East Colfax Community Collective, a community-driven advocacy organization fighting displacement, said she showed up on Oct. 3 and watched in shock as people were being evicted.
“Our systems simply aren’t in place to triage for these types of forced mass evictions,” she said.
Marshall had lived at the Summit View Inn for about two years with her partner and two young children. When guards arrived at her apartment, the family tried to quickly pack their belongings. But maintenance staff began throwing their personal items into a nearby trash bin, according to the lawsuit.
One armed security guard told Marshall that if she refused to leave the property, he had the right to shoot her, according to the lawsuit. The family left immediately and has been homeless since, according to the lawsuit. Marshall said her apartment door was booted as her family left many of their personal belongings including clothes, official documents, jewelry and many other items inherited from Marshall’s grandmother.
Darrell Rogers, another tenant, described similar treatment. After a notice to vacate was placed on his door in mid-September, he read it, and thought he had until Oct. 28 to leave, according to the lawsuit.
But he was told by VareCo employees, on Oct. 1, that he had to move out by Oct. 2. He raced to rent a small storage unit before packing his belongings that day. By 3 p.m., he had turned in his key. He left behind clothing, his bed, a couch, a table, pots, pans and a mini-frier, according to the lawsuit. He and his partner slept in Rogers’ car that night, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers said they do not know how many people were affected by the eviction. Lawyers plan to review the landlord’s business records, including payment ledgers, to obtain the final number, according to the lawsuit.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and the East Colfax Community Collective have worked together to locate Summit View Inn residents, interview them for the lawsuit and explore transitional housing for them.
“But something like this is all very new to us,” Clark said. “So we are really just in a lot of ways scratching the surface.”
Many families living in the East Colfax corridor are low-income, people of color and immigrant renters at higher risk for eviction, Clark said.
In early October, a new state law went into effect giving tenants recourse in cases where the landlord did not properly follow the eviction process.
“It was designed to address this very problem: What happens when a tenant is unlawfully evicted,” Cohn said. “This has been happening for a really long time in Colorado, but tenants had no recourse.”
Cohn said she thinks similar evictions are occurring at other motels along East Colfax. Awareness of the lawsuit, she said, may put other landlords on notice.
“It’s our understanding that Summit View is one of the worst of the worst, but they are taking advantage of people who are the most marginalized, living on the edge of poverty, and don’t have anywhere else to go,” Cohn said.
“Employing practices like charging these late fees, and not following the rules that everyone else has to follow, and doing it because they know they can get away with it — we’re trying to shine a light on it because they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. These people need to be treated with the same dignity as everyone else,” she said of former residents.
Evictions in Colorado have this year climbed back to more than half the rate per month in 2019 — or 1,700 evictions per month in October, compared with 3,035 per month in 2019. As of Nov. 15, there were 17,867 eviction filings in the state, including 867 so far in November, according to the Colorado Judicial Branch.
MORE: The East Colfax Community Collective has a 24-hour eviction response line, which was used to sound the alert about the Summit View Inn eviction. Organization leaders are asking community members living in the East Colfax corridor from Colorado Boulevard to Peoria Street, in ZIP codes 80220 and 80010, who have concerns about evictions to call 720-295-0152.