Halt evictions in Colorado

For economic, health and ethical reasons, the governor should act

July 31, 2020 4:13 pm

(Istock/Getty Images)

When Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide eviction moratorium at the end of April, his executive order referred to the economic hardship caused by COVID-19.

“Many Coloradans experienced substantial loss of income as a result of business closures and layoffs, hindering their ability to keep up with their rent or mortgage payments and threatening their housing security,” he wrote.

That remains at least as true now as it did then.

Pandemic-caused hardships continue to mount. Yet Colorado’s eviction moratorium was allowed to expire last month, and lesser tenant protections will expire in two weeks. It made no sense three months ago for the state to allow residential tenants to lose their homes en masse, and it makes no sense now. Polis should therefore reinstate an eviction moratorium.

State health officials in recent weeks have sounded the alarm over a resurgence of COVID-19. During a July 16 news briefing, the state epidemiologist, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, put it in stark perspective. “I want to focus not just on the number of cases that we’re seeing here in Colorado, or the fact that we’re seeing an increase in the number of cases here in the state, but the fact that we’re seeing an increase in the rate of cases,” she said.

In the week of April 26 — the week Polis issued the eviction moratorium — 3,518 cases of COVID-19 were reported in Colorado. Last week, 4,189 were reported — the highest weekly figure since the pandemic reached the state.

Unemployment levels are dismal. The rate of unemployment in Colorado remains more than 10%. During the week ending July 25, 8,008 Coloradans filed initial claims for unemployment insurance. That’s much fewer than April’s cascade of claims. But in recent weeks initial claims have hovered around 10,000 — much higher than the state saw even in the financial crisis of 2009-10.

The U.S. economy in the second quarter of the year experienced its steepest drop on record, it was reported this week. During the period from April to June, the gross domestic product contracted by an unthinkable 32.9%. The pandemic “is still inflicting damage across the country, squeezing already struggling businesses and forcing a wave of layoffs that shows no sign of abating,” the AP reported.

At a moment of such extreme hazard to public health and economic collapse, how can Colorado as a community tolerate evictions as usual?

Last month, 95% of Colorado tenants paid their rent. But factors contributed to this promising rate that are temporary. Tenants are running out of resources and will find it increasingly difficult to write checks for rent. The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project estimates that more than 390,000 people in the state will be at risk of eviction within a couple of months.

A camp of people experiencing homelessness encircles the grounds of Morey Middle School on June 27, 2020, in Denver. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

There is an obvious moral argument for halting evictions. Americans throughout the country were working hard to support families until a global pandemic upturned their lives. A just society would help them get through hardships for which they bear no responsibility, not compound their problems by inflicting the ultimate hardship of homelessness.

But the immediate argument for halting evictions has to do with economics and health. Communities will be far stronger and better positioned to rebound when as many people as possible remain housed. A national priority is for unemployed people to get back to work — economic recovery will depend on it — but evictions counteract this interest, since the disruptions of being kicked to the curb make job searching hard or impossible.

Some number of people who are evicted can be expected to live on the street, and Denver’s recent experience with homeless encampments should be a strong deterrent against policies that promote homelessness. “I was deeply troubled by the dangerous health situation in that area,” Polis said this week after police cleared a homeless encampment across the street from the state Capitol. The sweep made “everybody safer, including homeless residents and residents with homes,” he added.

If the health hazards of homeless encampments threaten the entire community, the entire community has an interest in preventing homeless encampments.

It would be unfair simply to shift financial burdens from tenants to owners or from owners to banks and lenders — that is why the discussion of evictions ultimately leads to the question of federal relief. As the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project said in a report in late May, “Only the federal government has sufficient financial power to provide cash assistance over the course of the crisis.”

The CARES Act, signed into law in March, provided $600 in weekly supplemental unemployment aid, a lifesaver for about 30 million Americans. That aid is expiring, and waves of delinquent rent payments could follow. The Senate is debating a new COVID-19 bill, though the Republican majority appears unwilling to adequately restore aid to unemployed people. That represents a failure to help protect constituents, including tenants and landlords, from COVID-caused economic fallout.

But Polis can shield Colorado from the worst possible outcome, in which thousands of people, in communities where disease is spreading and work is scarce, are forced from their homes. At a time when so few things are secure, the governor can ensure for Colorado families, as he did in April, at least housing security.

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