When about a dozen tenants filed into the Liv Lavender Property Management office in Arvada on Wednesday afternoon, a receptionist immediately grabbed a small dog and disappeared into the back of the building.
A maintenance manager came to the front of the building and told the residents no one was available to hear their concerns about pest infestations, mold, prolonged water shutoffs, plumbing problems, malfunctioning heat, broken windows, faulty locks on doors and unexplained fees including for “landlord’s liability insurance” at the Reed apartments in Lakewood.
He said he would contact their landlord, VareCo, which also owns Liv Lavender Property Management, and pass on their letter of demands, which asks the landlord to begin complying with Colorado habitability laws and meet with the residents on July 19 at the property before starting repairs. The maintenance manager then told the group to immediately leave the private property.
When the group stopped to take a photo outside of the Liv Lavender Property Management building, the maintenance manager threatened to call the police.
LEFT: The Reed apartment complex in Lakewood July 12. RIGHT: A maintenance worker, left, of Liv Lavender, a property management company, asks residents to leave the property after individuals delivered a letter of grievances. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
TOP: The Reed apartment complex in Lakewood July 12. BOTTOM: A maintenance worker, left, of Liv Lavender, a property management company, asks residents to leave the property after individuals delivered a letter of grievances July 12. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
“I’m moving and I’m so happy,” said Deborah Powers, who has lived at the Reed, just west of the desirable Sloan Lake neighborhood in Denver, for just over a year and has complained to Liv Lavender about broken windows, plumbing problems, health problems from mold, and mouse and ant infestations. She’s moving out July 23 but said she feels badly for residents who can’t do the same.
Denver-based VareCo has twice been sued for mismanaging a property it purchased with the intention of renovating and renting at a higher price to new tenants. The lawsuits accuse the company of hiring armed guards to illegally evict tenants from the Summit View Inn in Aurora before they had their day in court. VareCo recently settled with three residents, but 18 others are suing the company for similar claims.
Liv Lavender Property Management did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.
Jeffrey Springer, a lawyer for VareCo said by email, the landlord has done everything it could to maintain the premises. He said residents’ claims were inaccurate and that they organized for personal reasons to denigrate the Reed apartment complex. He also claimed residents refused to allow maintenance workers into their apartments. When asked what residents’ motive would be, he said, “You would have to ask them.”
The city of Lakewood building department has received several phone calls over the last month from Reed apartment residents about livability issues, said Paul Hardison, a building official for the city of Lakewood.
Hardison has been in contact with residents, VareCo and Liv Lavender Property Management and has tried to foster a cooperative environment to resolve ongoing issues at the complex, he said by email.
“This has not (been) met with the success we had hoped for, so I will be scheduling inspections of the complex with Liv Lavender, VareCo and the tenants to see and document the issues,” he wrote in the email.
On May 8, the city council adopted the 2021 international property maintenance code, and since June 30 the building department has had jurisdiction over building maintenance and habitability issues within the city limits. The building department will continue to work with residents, VareCo and Liv Lavender to correct deficiencies and increase habitability at the complex, Hardison said.
Tenant unions gaining traction in metro Denver
The action at Liv Lavender was the latest by Denver-Aurora Tenants United, or DATU, a volunteer organization helping renters facing unlivable conditions to understand and advocate for their rights.
When residents of the Reed complain, they are either ignored or threatened with eviction, said Bruno Tapia, a tenant organizer at DATU. About half of the tenants of the Reed, a complex with about 40 apartments, have low incomes and are using Section 8 housing vouchers to pay for rent, he added.
The residents’ efforts to capture their landlord’s attention follows similar work elsewhere in the metro Denver area, aimed at harnessing the power of tenants who say they’re paying increasing rents that fill the pockets of landlords, who fail to provide even minimal maintenance services.
A group of metro Denver residents who are also fed up with their living quarters attempted to crash the Apartment Association of Metro Denver’s award ceremony late last month in an effort led by Colorado Homes for All, a statewide organization that believes housing is a human right.
“It sucks that something like this actually has to be the thing that brings the neighbors together,” said Kelly Crum, a member of The Reed Tenants Union, recently formed, with help from DATU, to help residents begin advocating for better living conditions at the building.
DATU began organizing the Lakewood residents after lawyers from the Colorado Economic Defense Project contacted them about a month ago. The attorneys are also representing the Aurora Summit View Inn plaintiffs.
DATU has organized residents in seven buildings in metro Denver since 2020, just after the COVID-19 eviction moratorium began. Since then, DATU has studied tenant organizing in other cities with more robust organizing efforts such as in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago and now, its main tactic is to collectively organize residents, coordinate delivery of a demand letter, garner media attention and give landlords the opportunity to resolve issues to help create accountability, Tapia said.
The tactics worked at Capitol Hill Apartments, Tapia said. After residents delivered their demands letter, the property management company began making repairs to the 121-unit affordable housing apartment complex.
And since DATU intervened at the income-restricted Denver Viña Apartments in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in May, the property manager and landlord have been meeting with the resident association monthly to ensure residents’ concerns are addressed, he added.
“We’ve definitely seen this succeed in the past and we always hope that it can just be a conversation that takes place and that these things get fixed, because at the end of the day, tenants don’t want to go on a big legal battle. And so we do hope that this succeeds here. But with the track record that this company has, we’ll see what happens,” he said of VareCo.
Tenant-union movements are often found in major cities where organizing has occurred for years or decades. New York City, for example, has a form of rent control because of robust tenant organizers who fought against evictions during the Great Depression, Tapia said.
Denver, a much younger and smaller city, has seen far fewer historical tenant organizing movements, Tapia said. “And I think that is in large part why the landlord lobbies and the real estate lobbies have had so much power in Denver to shape the laws and the conditions in which renters live.”
Tenants claim they were retaliated against when they complained
Jasmine Brior said she has scars on her legs from being bitten by carpenter ants that infested her home at The Reed, which is advertised on Zillow as “sleek” and “spacious” apartments where renters can enjoy the freedom of having everything they need at their fingertips.
“We would buy bug bombs and Raid and I asked them for pest control and they said they would put me on the schedule and it never happened,” Brior said about the bug infestation.
None of her windows locked, and after the heat stopped working during the winter, Brior says her daughter got frostbite.
Brior uses a state housing voucher to cover her rent, so in May, she asked the state Department of Local Affairs to send an inspector to the two-bedroom apartment because Liv Lavender was not making repairs.
When her home failed, Liv Lavender was given 30 days to correct 14 problems, according to a copy of the DOLA report.
Soon after, Brior received a notice from Liv Lavender Property Management that described her as hostile and said she had violated her lease and disrupted business operations.
On June 6, a few weeks before her lease ended on June 29, she received a notice from Liv Lavender that gave her 10 days to vacate the property. If she did not leave by then, the notice said, the landlord would start the eviction process in court.
Although Powers said she’s happy to leave the Reed, she’s worried about neighbors with more severe problems, who can’t afford to move.
“There’s a lady here who has been defecating in a bucket because they have not fixed her plumbing,” she said before Brior showed a video of the woman’s bathroom to The Colorado Sun. “It’s horrible.”
DATU aims to help residents understand that they don’t have to tolerate unlivable conditions, Tapia said. People feel powerless, even when their landlord is violating the law, he said.
“What we’ve found is, when tenants come together, and they speak to their neighbors, and they make their community aware and fight together, they can actually see big changes in their conditions,” he said. “Having this happen more and more is the only way we’re going to have any kind of counter to the big power that the landlords and the real estate lobbies have in Colorado.”