By HAYLEY SANCHEZ/ANDREW KENNEY/CPR NEWS
Countless renters and property owners in Colorado are looking toward the end of the pandemic and wondering what comes next.
Gail Steger Mock has been a landlord for 35 years. She got into the rental business because she wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on people.
“You get to help them have a decent place to live, and that’s where I come from. I am not a slum landlord,” she said.
But after a year of the pandemic, her properties aren’t looking as nice as she would prefer. Outside a pale blue four-plex she owns in Aurora, she pointed out some of the maintenance that she’s had to delay.
“That would be landscaping. That would be fencing. That would be exterior stuff,” said Steger Mock, who owns 12 units in Arapahoe and Adams counties. “I need to power wash my building, but that’s expensive, so I’m putting that off.”
Like a lot of landlords in Colorado, Steger Mock has tenants who’ve lost work due to COVID-19 and haven’t been able to keep up on rent. In this building, two of her tenants are paying on time while the other two are trying to catch up.
Lamont Clifton is one of them. He works in construction and remodeling, while picking up other side jobs like setting up events at the Denver Convention Center or plowing snow at Denver International Airport. Most of his work was shut down by the pandemic, so he was receiving unemployment benefits. But those have been delayed for months because of the state’s new identity verification requirement.
Clifton said he wishes he didn’t have to rely on unemployment benefits, but “you have no choice because you’re trying to catch up with everything you’re behind on … It’s hard to sleep at night.”
Clifton said that anytime he gets paid, he sends what he can to Steger Mock. But he’s still falling behind, without a clear path to catching up.
Soon, landlords may regain the option to evict tenants who aren’t caught up on rent. Steger Mock isn’t planning to do that, though. Instead, she and Clifton are working together – a balancing act to keep him housed and her paid.
“It should be pretty important,” Clifton said. “That’s your place to stay and like me and Gail’s communication is always the key, even though we’re still struggling to get money.”
The pair are among the countless renters and property owners in Colorado who are looking toward the end of the pandemic and wondering what comes next – some with fear, others with impatience, and many with mixed emotions about their housing situation.
As the pandemic winds down, new housing questions arise
Renters and landlords face new questions as the pandemic appears to be winding down. After a year of pandemic rules and guardrails, everything’s changing again. The federal ban on evictions may end in the next few months, depending on what the president and legal system decide.
At least 80,000 Colorado renters are estimated to be behind on their rent, according to recent U.S. Census survey data. And the CDC ban on evictions is set to expire on June 30, if President Joe Biden does not extend it. The ban could also end sooner, if struck down by the courts.
The beginning of the pandemic brought panic and warnings of a “tsunami” of evictions. Instead, government restrictions ensured that the eviction rate dropped sharply. It’s unclear what will happen when those protections end. Courts could see a delayed surge in filings.
But eviction isn’t the only option landlords have. Many may try to negotiate compromises with their tenants. The question is whether the parties can pull together enough money – from a reopening economy and from the state’s rental assistance fund – to strike a deal and end this surreal experience.
Zach Neumann, a housing advocate and attorney with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, said that much of his job has shifted from battling landlords in court to negotiating with them.
Early in the pandemic, his group realized “money goes a lot further than having an attorney by your side in court.” And there is money out there – the state has directed $247 million from the most recent federal aid package to the rental relief fund, which both tenants and landlords can apply for.
“I think the money resolves the debt and it creates conditions where you can actually negotiate with the landlord,” he said, adding that renters still need lawyers and legal protections.
Rental assistance is out there, but it can take a while to get the money
For a lot of people – including Steger Mock and Clifton – the best chance for a compromise is getting that government money, if they can be patient.
Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs has paid out more than $80 million in Emergency Rental Assistance since the program was set up last year with federal and state money.
But of the 54,281 applications for aid, about a quarter are still pending, and it can take more than a month for the money to flow.
Steger Mock has applied more than once for aid and said it comes sporadically.
Her first try was last March, but she didn’t receive money until November. The roughly $26,000 she got was enough to make her whole at the time. But the continued economic downturn made it hard for her tenants to find work and keep up with their rent. So she reapplied, and is again waiting for funds.
“The paperwork is in, but I haven’t seen a thing,” she said. “I check my mail and check my web account and try to see if they’re going to pay. But they don’t give you any word if they pay you. It just shows up.”
The wait-time can be long enough, advocates fear, that some landlords will simply move to evict if the money doesn’t arrive in time. And while they’re waiting, late fees and missed payments pile up. Sometimes, the check doesn’t cover the accumulated debt when it finally arrives.
“If you’re waiting six to eight weeks to hear about your application, you know, that might be too long to wait before you’re forced out,” said attorney Jason Legg, who’s working with 9to5 Colorado, the working women’s advocacy group, to help people avoid eviction.
“It’s still pretty bad out there,” Zach Neumann said. ” … The situation is improving slowly and we’ve got to preserve the policies and the funding we have in place – so we can fully, and finally resolve this thing.”
Tenant advocates want the governor to step in with another state eviction ban if the federal moratorium expires, to give more time for tenants and landlords to work it out. Legg suggested that the state should – at the very least – ensure that people aren’t evicted while they’re waiting for potential assistance.
On the other side, some landlord groups say the crisis is easing and the market should be allowed to do its work before landlords suffer more damage. “People are hopeful that we’re getting to the end of manipulation of the markets,” said Drew Hamrick, general counsel for the Colorado Apartment Association.
Colorado Democrats are pushing for more housing reform, which worries landlords
Another question mark hanging over the rental market is whether the temporary policies of the pandemic may lead to permanent changes in the rules that govern landlords and tenants.
Gov. Jared Polis has not said what he will do if the CDC moratorium expires. If he does not create another state ban on evictions, politicians in the legislature could try to do so.
And the legislature has been advancing bills that would put permanent new restrictions on the late fees landlords can charge and give tenants more opportunities to avoid having an eviction on their record.
The Democratic lawmakers behind the bill argue it’s needed to address long-standing inequities in the rental market that have been made starker by the pandemic.
“Republicans and Democrats alike, we have to make a decision. Are we going to support the monied interests, or are we going to support Coloradans in need, particularly in this moment of multiple crises of the pandemic itself and the ensuing economic devastation?” state Sen. Julie Gonzales said.
But Peter Meer of Meer & Company, Inc. worries about what that policy could mean for landlords and the supply of rental housing. He’s been in the rental business since the ’70s and owns about a dozen properties while managing another 150 single-family rental homes for other owners in the Denver area.
“Owners have mortgages. They need the income from the rental,” he said. “We need to keep properties filled with people who pay the rent.”
Meer largely disagrees with the housing reform measures making their way through the state legislature. But one thing he would like to see stick around for the foreseeable future is the moratorium on evictions. He wants people to stay housed where they are until the pandemic subsides permanently.
“When times are tough, like once in 100 years for this, we need to do something besides raise the rent and make it harder for people to have housing,” he said.
When the relationship between landlord and tenant sours, renters are left even more vulnerable
The Colorado Apartment Association said its members, who are generally the state’s larger landlords, reported that less than four percent of their tenants were behind on their rent, as of the end of April.
That high rate shows “that Colorado residents are able to receive rental assistance, work with their rental housing providers and pay their rent, therefore, the system is working,” said Mark Williams, the CCA’s vice president, in a statement announcing the latest rent collection figure.
But that data may not capture the full market, since the CAA’s membership is focused on larger apartment buildings. Other data from the U.S. Census pulse survey shows a higher share, about 8 percent, are behind on their rent.
And many of those facing the most desperate situations have already been forced to move. In Lakewood, Samuel Guadarrama, 27, had to move his wife and children out of their apartment after the landlord raised the rent last summer.
“It kind of made me sad, you know – something between sad and angry,” said Guadarrama, a father of four. His work as a cook and server dried up in the pandemic, so he decided to look for somewhere cheaper. When he found a new place, he moved out of his apartment on short notice, he said.
“I went in the office and said, ‘Hey, here’s the key, I’m moving because of this, because you increased the rent and didn’t give me a solution,'” he said.
Guadarrama said the manager agreed to send a bill for what he owed – he expected to have to pay for repairs. Instead, the managers almost immediately sent the account to collection, he said; the company is demanding nearly $3,000, more than twice his rent, and claiming that the carpet needed replacement.
The collections claim is damaging their credit and blocking their ability to get credit cards or to buy furniture.
“It always shows up,” he said.
Those kinds of conflicts about money could last far beyond the pandemic, hurting renters’ chance to find future housing, Legg said.
There might not be a ‘tsunami’ of evictions, but housing is still uncertain for many
A year into the pandemic, some renters’ advocates say they no longer expect to see a “tsunami” of evictions when protections lift. That’s in part because of government assistance. But it’s also because evictions – including informal ones – have continued throughout the pandemic, even if it’s been slower than normal.
Legg, with 9to5, points out that the federal moratorium contains lots of exceptions, including for people whose leases have expired and who are on month-to-month leases. That’s the situation for 76-year-old Diana Vassar in Salida. She has no protections from eviction – and is looking nervously at the months ahead.
Vassar rents a small, tidy studio in the mountain town on a monthly basis. Her landlord wants to raise the rent from $750 to $900, knowing that will force her to leave in the coming weeks or months, said Vassar, who has lived on the property for 13 years.
“‘I’ll find something,'” she recalled telling him.”‘But if you think you need to evict me, if you can do that in good conscience, you can do that.'”
Vassar would have been protected from eviction earlier in the pandemic. A state policy extended eviction protections to people whose leases had expired. But Gov. Jared Polis allowed that order to lapse at the end of 2020.
Vassar’s getting by on unemployment after being laid off from her job at a gift shop earlier in the pandemic. Now she fears her age is ruining her job prospects. And there are few, if any, affordable local rental options in her area, she said.
Places for low-income seniors “are fully booked, and they have a long waiting list – because I’m not the only one in this little town being displaced,” she said.
She thinks her landlord will allow her to rent for another couple months after May, but she’s not sure.
(Vassar asked CPR News not to contact her landlord, for fear that he would move to evict her in retaliation.)
“I know it’s ending,” she said. “But I don’t have an answer for where I’m going. There’s nothing in this town.”
For those in steadier situations, the future feels a little brighter. Back in Aurora, Clifton plans to continue renting his apartment from landlord Steger Mock – it’s affordable and well taken care of, and his relationship with his landlord helps.
“She’s really been awesome with working with me,” he said. “She’s a good landlord. I just love her to death.”
Clifton said he’ll have to stay vigilant about his spending long after the pandemic. When things get back to normal, he said, he’s prepared to work full-time, seven days a week so he can catch up.
Until then, Steger Mock is patient; she doesn’t even charge her tenants late fees.
“You’re adding insult to injury,” she said, of such fees. “These people are never going to catch up if you keep adding and adding. And then what are you going to do? You’re going to evict them. And then they end up (as) somebody else’s problem, which is – it’s sad.”
She and her renters will work it out, she said. She hasn’t raised the rent since 2019. That’s been a challenge because her property taxes have spiked, plus she needs to stay on top of her mortgage, utilities, and other expenses. But Steger Mock said good at planning ahead for financial setbacks. And two-thirds of her tenants are still paying rent on time.
“I’ve decided to just hang in here,” she said, “and wait it out.”
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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.
This story was written in partnership with Colorado Public Radio, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.