The Colorado Department of Local Affairs has taken a blunt approach to defining its role in assisting renters with landlord troubles: On a mostly empty webpage, five words direct you to a non-government phone number with subsequent bold text that reads, “The Colorado Division of Housing does not enforce any housing codes nor mediate landlord/tenant disputes.”
As a renter in this state for nearly 15 years, I’ve long held my fair share of concerns on the topic of renting. As it turns out, I’m not alone. Dozens of renters are now stepping forward after the Marshall fire to report blatant issues by scummy landlords such as price gouging, retaliatory lease termination and an outright refusal to remediate properties that are in violation of the Warranty of Habitability.
But, according to Policy and Advocacy Staff Attorney Jack Regenbogen of the Colorado Poverty Law Project, these post-fire experiences are only the tip of the iceberg of what his team sees on a daily basis across the state.
“This is a rural, urban and suburban issue. There is so much unmet need of people whose housing rights have been violated, that the state not only has a vested interest in protecting these rights, but in providing them,” he says.
“Our organization provides free legal consultation for some of the hardest cases, such as illegal lockouts or utilities shut off … but there’s really no one to support at the state level, only a handful of legal aid orgs. One study a few years ago showed that for every 10,000 people experiencing poverty, there is only one legal aide to help for civil justice. There are just not enough attorneys, let alone a pro bono basis, and the risk of incurring attorney’s fees are often limiting as are procedural barriers to accessing court.
“It’s estimated the vast majority of breaches go unenforced. What good is it if we change the words in the law books, but they go unenforced?”
Regenbogen’s question hits at the heart of why the legislature’s recent efforts to curb renter’s concerns have fallen flat: Legislation without enforcement is just a piece of paper, and right now, Colorado renters basically have an IOU scratched on a post-it. Why? As Regenbogen explains, there are simply no state agencies tasked with comprehensive and proactive rental protections and enforcement assistance. Moreover, even if we had full enforcement, the state is still missing critical tenant protections.
“One of the overarching reasons why it’s so hard to achieve anti-retaliation policy is because in Colorado there are almost no protections around terminating leases or non-renewals. Many other states require just cause eviction to terminate tenancy. Colorado is not one of them. We can pass robust anti-retaliation laws, but as long as landlords are permitted to end tenancy without reason, it’s very easy for someone to circumvent the anti-relation laws.”
This isn’t to say there haven’t been some positive developments on housing policy in Colorado — there have. Two preliminary wins as of late are the Dispute Resolution and Enforcement Program of 2019 under the Office of Mobile Home Park Oversight Program and the Fair Housing Unit Department of Law in the recent session. However, as Regenbogen points out, these are not game-changers overnight and both require substantially more funding and scope.
Interestingly, the real problem appears to be not that we don’t have solutions, we do, but that political will is lacking without more vocal public support — a problem that may soon resolve itself.
Facing long-time stigma and well-funded anti-renter lobbyists, renters have generally not been legislative priorities. Yet as local housing markets go wild, renters now make up an increasing share of the voting population. Denver, for example, recently crossed the 50% threshold for renting residents. Accordingly, the politics may soon be forced to follow, especially as more renters share their horror stories.
But it’s not only renters who should care. Homeowners and property management teams should be equally invested in stronger efforts to protect renters. By clarifying the tenancy process and setting clear expectations for both parties, landlords are provided clear legal guidelines that help to minimize financial and legal risks — especially as more renters are likely to become well versed in the laws we do currently have.
After my discussion with Regenbogen, there are at least three areas of specific reform residents should demand for the 2023 legislative session: lease reform to avoid tenants giving away rights, efforts to increase state oversight and permissible forms of rent stabilization such as after a natural disaster — and with general elections now under way, it’s a great time for voters to ask candidates where they stand.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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