As a renter of nearly 20 years, I’ve learned a thing or two about tenant-landlord relationships. For my part, I do everything possible to be an ideal tenant. I’m quiet, low-maintenance, pay rent on time, engage well with neighbors and keep my rental in excellent condition.

I wish I could say I’ve always received the same level of respect from my landlords in return.

It’s well known that Colorado tenants are struggling as of late. Whether it’s rising rent or shady practices by property management companies, I’ve watched for years as tenants are openly taken advantage of and degraded in public discourse. From being called transient to less responsible, the negative attitude toward tenants persists, despite study after study showing two-thirds of renters stay for at least one year, and 70% of those who do move stay within the same metro area. 

Most of the time, renters are forced to put up with these bad behaviors out of necessity. But for the first time in Colorado, the tides might finally be turning.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that just as there are bad landlords, there are also bad tenants. However, two key differences between bad landlords and bad tenants must be recognized. 

First, at least in the state of Colorado, good landlords have far more legal protections and recourse when wronged by bad tenants than good tenants have to protect them from bad landlords. In fact, our state is so lax in its legal protections for tenants, that tenants lack basic protections against evictions without just cause or the ability to easily receive economic relief when housing conditions are unsafe or unsanitary. In other words, a bad landlord is more legally protected than a bad tenant, and that’s an inequity worth addressing.

Second, the inherent disparity of power in the landlord-tenant relationship means that for as much as a bad tenant can harm a good landlord — and they can — those actions pale in comparison to the combined economic and emotional damages a bad landlord can inflict on a good tenant by wrongfully taking away their home. For example, where a bad tenant might not pay rent on time or cause damage to a property, it is impossible for a bad tenant to permanently steal the landlord’s home by breaching the lease. This creates a vastly different scale of emotional distress and therefore warrants its own discussion.

The lack of acknowledgment of these two differences is where tenant-landlord discussions often go awry. As a tenant, I may not own the walls or property, but my rental is still my home. Whether I plan to live there for a few months or a few years, the place I rent is the place I live. It’s where I host my friends for dinner and build memories that will last a lifetime. It’s my safe place when life gets tough. No lease agreement, however detailed, can accurately reflect this emotional service of providing not just a house or apartment, but a home.

It’s for these reasons that good tenants in Colorado should have access to noneconomic damages from bad landlords. Because when a landlord breaches their end of the agreement, it’s not only the cost to move or a month’s rent on the line for the tenant; it’s the emotional distress that comes with losing one’s home. 

In most cases, the notion of noneconomic damages for landlord-tenant violations had not been ruled on in Colorado courts, to the best of my knowledge. So I’m thrilled to share that a Colorado judge recently determined that noneconomic emotional damages are compensable for landlord violations of Colorado’s habitability laws. I know this because it was my case.

Truth be told, I was terrified to file a lawsuit against my former landlord. I’d never done it and I knew they had more rights and resources than I did. But I also knew I had a good case, and thanks to free legal access courtesy of donors to the East County Housing Opportunity Coalition, I had the chance to put my best foot forward, not only for myself but for all tenants in Colorado. So, I decided to fight. I’m glad I did.

My case was never about big money. That wasn’t the point. The point was that for the first time in my nearly 20 years of renting, I felt emotionally violated in a way that moving alone couldn’t solve. Even now, a year and a half later, it’s hard to sum up the emotional loss of losing my home and community of over five years through no fault of my own.

If you’ve never experienced such loss, it’s tough to describe. Losing a home unexpectedly, particularly when outside of your control, is extremely distressing. For me, I almost instantly found myself in a tailspin, both scared of finding myself homeless and for the unknown of having the rug ripped out from underneath me. As I grappled with finding new housing, my emotional and physical health spiraled. Soon, the immense stress seeped into every area of my life and I barely managed to keep up with work and personal responsibilities, having been forced to drop everything and move. Within days, I fell behind with work clients, ultimately losing some, and long-time community relationships crumbled beyond repair. What had taken me years to build was lost, and a year and a half later I’m still working to put all the pieces back together. 

In an overly litigious society, we sometimes have an aversion to lawsuits, especially ones that seek emotional damages. I certainly do. It’s a reasonable sentiment to the sometimes frivolous cases that bog down our justice system.

But as I learned firsthand, sometimes a lawsuit is a last resort that actually can find justice, and violations in tenant habitability cases typically carry legitimate and heavy emotional distress. Finally, a Colorado court has recognized this through my case, and now other tenants might be able to use my outcome to better protect themselves.

There’s perhaps a second lesson we can learn from my experience: Had I felt respected by my former landlords, I probably wouldn’t have filed suit. According to my lawyer in this case, Stephen H. Hennessy, this is a common theme among tenants with habitability claims. He also points out this is where landlords have tools beyond the law that can protect them legally.

“Landlords can approach a situation with a compassionate, human perspective,” Hennessy said, “and this often can relieve tenants from feeling the need to seek legal recourse. While economics play a role in habitability and retaliation cases, emotional distress is often the driving factor for feeling wronged. By treating tenants with respect, compassion and dignity, landlords can increase their ability to secure strong tenants and decrease their likelihood of legal and financial exposure.”

At least in my case, this is 100% true. And while no amount of money can fully heal the emotional toll of losing my home, the recognition of that injury as damages in a court of law means something.

I remain a strong proponent of increasing legal protections for tenants, and I hope state legislators will keep fighting to make it easier to protect ourselves. I also remain a strong proponent of encouraging landlords to build more respectful relationships with their tenants. 

Not only will this improve the tenant experience, but treating each other as human beings first and foremost just might mean the difference between landing yourself in court or not. After all, if a landlord isn’t treating tenants how they would want to be treated themselves, or if they can’t provide a house they would want to live in, can you really consider yourself a quality landlord?

I think not.

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. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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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. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio