By Sarah Ford
The recently-closed legislative session saw victories for several tenants’ rights bills hailed as a big step forward for a state that sees hundreds of thousands of evictions every year. But is it enough to offer hope of ending the “eviction epidemic?”
Every year in Denver, thousands of people come home to find a notice on the door that throws their lives into turmoil.
Depending on what that notice says, a tenant has just 10 days to respond. Ten days to try and collect possibly hundreds or even thousands of dollars in owed rent, or to correct a situation that violated a lease agreement.
If they can’t, there is a strong possibility they will be forced to find new housing in just weeks. Many cannot. It is a process that will leave a person destitute, possibly homeless, and marked forever by the ruinous word “eviction” on their records.
It’s what Floyd Jones, a Legal Administrator at Colorado Affordable Legal Services (CALS) calls “the scarlet letter.”
“You’re branded forever,” he says. That’s regardless of whether the case goes through. “Evictions are an epidemic,” Jones says.
Eviction, the legal process by which a landlord forces a tenant to leave a property, is being called a crisis in Colorado and across the country by many experts. The over 7,000 people who faced eviction cases in Denver in 2017, the year the most recent data is available, would probably agree.
“There could have been more people evicted because those are just the cases filed,” says Colorado Center on Law and Policy attorney Jack Regenbogen. “The number of people experiencing evictions may actually be much higher.”
According to data released last year by the organization Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction cases nationally, Denver’s precipitous rise in evictions falls in line with an alarming trend experienced across the country since the start of the century.
Eviction Lab’s research team, led by Matthew Desmond, compiled public records of eviction cases dating back to 2000 in effort to create the most complete records of evictions available today. The results revealed that evictions in the United States have nearly doubled from 2000 to 2016, rising from 518,873 to 898,479.
The results of a survey of eviction proceedings in Denver from 2014 to 2016, co-authored by Regenbogen and Aubrey Hasvold from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, found that not only is Denver firmly in the midst of the national eviction crisis, but the city’s historically landlord-favorable policies have put residents in a place where they are “severely disadvantaged” in eviction cases.
“Facing Eviction Alone” found there were 17,946 evictions ordered from 2014 to 2016. However, that number could be higher. Denver has no central data collecting system around evictions, meaning researchers had to search through city data and court files to gather data.
Predictably, most evictions filed were due to non-payment of rent. Surprisingly, many of them were for payment discrepancies in only the double digits, with one particular case filed by the Denver Housing Authority over a difference of just $4 in rent.
“There were a number of cases we looked at involving rent payment in the double digits and it’s really such a tragedy,” says Regenbogen. “There’s really no reason, and the cost to society is immense.”
But there may be some hope.
“I do think it has gotten better since our report was released,” says Regenbogen. Much of that progress comes in the last year, with the passage of several notable tenants’ rights bills in the recently-concluded 2019 legislative session and additional steps forward taken by the city.
So where does Denver stand now, and is there hope for reducing the thousands of people every year who come home to find that fearful notice on their door?
The Race Question
Eviction happens across the board, impacting people of all races, ethnicities, and income levels. However, data supports that minority groups experience eviction at disproportionate levels.
Eviction Lab’s 2016 study found that the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates had five cities with higher Black populations than white. The city with the highest eviction rate — North Charleston, South Carolina — saw at least 3,660 evictions in 2016. Of those, 48.25 percent were Black tenants and 36.85 percent were white.
By comparison, 53.1 percent of Denver’s 3,566 evictions were white tenants in 2016, according to the data, and 9.38 percent were Black. However, 30.94 percent of those evicted were members of the Latinx community.
“Housing discrimination based on racial ethnicity may be illegal, but it is still very real,” says Regenbogen. “That can often manifest in the form of evictions. You also have to consider historical racial discriminations in how neighborhoods were redlined or opportunities were denied to people of color.”
Regenbogen investigated the breakdown of evictions in Denver neighborhoods in “Facing Eviction Alone” to find that neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color and which are experiencing rapid development and gentrification were the most affected by eviction.
That includes the neighborhoods of Five Points, Montbello, Gateway-Green Valley Ranch, Windsor, and Hampden, which saw the highest number of evictions at 1,116.
“This may reflect which neighborhoods have the greatest concentration of renters, as well as other socioeconomic factors,” the report notes. “Moreover, the areas with higher concentrations of eviction may correspond with a higher density of multi-family rental units.”
“There’s still inequity in access to higher paying jobs and higher wages [for people of color],” says Regenbogen. “That has contributed to housing insecurity in a way that is very racialized.”
However, Jones emphasizes that the devastation of eviction impacts all socio-economic and racial groups across the city and state.
“Eviction is color blind,” he says.
Just last year, Jones says CALS received over 1,600 calls to their HELP line from a wide variety of clients seeking help in eviction cases from around the state and across all socio-economic groups.
“Evictions in the community today are Black, brown, gay, straight, rich, poor, Christian, and Muslim,” Jones says.
Representation Makes A Difference
When someone finds themselves facing an eviction order in Denver, their options become limited: find a way to pay the possibly overwhelming missing rent and late fees, lose their home, or challenge the eviction complaint in court.
Those who pursue the third option with legal representation find a good deal of success. According to data from “Facing Eviction Alone,” 80 percent of tenants with representation in DHA cases were able to avoid eviction, and 94 percent in private housing cases kept their home.
The problem? That represents a total of just 41 cases. The vast majority of people who receive an eviction complaint have no access to affordable representation and a many find themselves displaced.
Tenants in DHA cases had a rate of representation of just three percent over three years while private housing tenants had an even lower average rate of representation at 1.5 percent. In that time, DHA cases experienced displacement rates (effective evictions) of 43 percent and 68 percent in private housing cases. Conversely, private property managers and the DHA had representation in 100 percent of cases.
“If you ever go to the Denver County Court you can sit and watch when they go through these eviction cases,” Regenbogen says. “It’s sort of like assembly-line justice. It’s terrifying.”
The fear and confusion of eviction procedures are factors many tenants fall victim to without representation.
“The eviction process is terrifying, it’s stressful,” says Regenbogen. “A lot of people may be pressured into evictions without court. We found only seven percent file an answer [a legal response to an eviction complaint],” he says. “That suggests the vast majority of tenants don’t contest the eviction.”
For those seeking assistance, resources are limited.
There is CALS, which Jones notes is the only for-profit legal firm working completely in tenant and landlord dispute cases in the state. They are, he says, inundated with calls to their HELP-line.
In the wake of the “Facing Eviction Alone” study, the city also funded Colorado Legal Services’ (CLS) eviction defense fund, which provides pro-bono legal services to those within 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
The pilot program was launched by City Council in June 2018 and is funded to continue at least through this year.
“We must stem the tide of homelessness,” District 6 Councilman Paul Kashmann said when the funding was announced. “It can take months or a year to get back on track. Legal defense in eviction cases improves the chance a renter will be able to stay in their home and reduces the financial burden on taxpayers.”
Since its launch, CLS has assisted an estimated 300 clients as of March of this year — about 12 per week — and Director of Advocacy Reenie Terjack estimates CLS is working with about 20 percent of tenants who have been sued for eviction. But there are still many without help.
There is also the passage of Senate Bill 180 in the last legislative session, which created an eviction legal defense fund to award grants to qualifying organizations which provide legal counsel to tenants at risk of eviction.
Although many still go without representation, the addition of both services in the past year are seen by many as an upward trend in the battle against the eviction crisis.
“It’s very exciting and a step in the right direction,” says Regenbogen, “but to be clear, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
“I’m cautiously optimistic that things are trending in the right direction,” says Regenbogen. “There’s a public consciousness and will that I think is strong and growing.”
He references not only the CLS and legal defense fund programs, but several other legislative victories for tenants rights bills supported by the CCLP. The 2019 legislative session saw not just Senate Bill 180 pass, but also House Bill 1118, which extended the time required by landlords to notify a tenant of eviction to ten days.
“Up until now, people have had just three calendar dates — including weekends — and that was just utterly inefficient,” says Regenbogen. “Seventy-two hours is just not enough time.”
He says the past year has been one of the most successful in recent history for tenants’ rights, and it inspires some optimism, but Colorado has historically been a state that favors landlords. The rental listing site RentCafe ranks Colorado as one of the 16 “landlord-friendly” states in the country.
Regenbogen applauds the victories of the past year, but sees numerous other opportunities to tip the scales towards renters.
Both he and Jones see some of the biggest needs as measures to set limits on late fees for unpaid rent, limits on a landlord’s ability to expel a resident after the expiration of a lease, and a path to remove dismissed eviction cases from a tenant’s record. Currently, any eviction case remains on a tenant’s record regardless of whether they succeeded challenging it in court.
“It brands you, it haunts you forever,” says Jones. The “scarlet letter” drastically impacts a tenant’s credit and ability to qualify for affordable housing down the road.
“We saw a lot of progress this year [in legislation],” Regenbogen says. “There’s more to be done, but I’m hoping that with passing this legislation our laws will be a bit more balanced between renter and landlord’s rights.”
Eviction’s Many Layers
Even with the legislative victories, Jones emphasizes that there are numerous socio-economic factors that feed into eviction, making the crisis a symptom of a much larger problem.
“Evictions are a three-legged stool,” he says. “You need monetary assistance, legal assistance, and mediation if it is available.”
Unless Colorado addresses the larger socio-economic factors at play, Jones believes the state cannot solve the problem of eviction. He offers an example of transportation accessibility in Arapahoe County, where a person facing an eviction case must arrive in court by 8:30 a.m. to avoid an automatic judgement that would force them into displacement.
For those traveling by public transportation, it may be a significant challenge to arrive on time.
“If you’re late, that’s it. You’re getting evicted.” Jones says.
He says there is a desperate need for higher wages, rent stabilization, assistance in transportation, and other efforts to support working-class Coloradans. Otherwise, tenant rights legislation becomes a band-aid measure for a much bigger issue.
Unavailability of affordable housing is what both Regenbogen and Jones see as the root of the problem. Currently, average rent in Denver is $1,602 according to real-estate site RentCafe.com. That is only projected to increase as Colorado experiences an influx of new residents. Without turning resources to solving Denver’s lack of affordability, both expect the eviction crisis to continue.
“This year’s legislation approved a number of bills that will help affordable housing,” says Regenbogen. “There’s work to be done, but it’s a step in the right direction. We need to see much more investment in creating a state where people can afford to live.” ■