The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted untold harm on Americans in so many ways.
Its gravest threat is to life itself — as of Friday, 168,000 people in the United States have died due to COVID-19. But next to loss of life and health among COVID hazards is loss of housing, and state and federal officials must do more to help Coloradans keep their homes.
The outlook is dire. Colorado unemployment has remained above 10% since April. More than half of Colorado restaurants say they’ll cease operations if present conditions persist another three months. Initial weekly unemployment claims in Colorado since mid-June have averaged about 8,500, when the average in 2019 was 1,900, and that doesn’t include many thousands of unemployed gig workers and independent contractors.
Workers are hurting. And that translates into trouble when rent and mortgage payments come due. At least a quarter of Colorado renters are at risk of eviction by the end of the year, according to a report released last week by The Aspen Institute. The administration of Gov. Jared Polis told state lawmakers this week that one in five adults in Colorado have low confidence they’ll be able to pay rent or mortgage on time next month, according to The Colorado Sun.
An enormous weight is crushing members of the Colorado family, and the responsibility to help lift it rests with all who call the state home. We can start by measuring the weight, and some have tried to do this — the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project estimates that debt from unpaid rent in Colorado could reach almost $600 million by the end of September.
How does the need for housing assistance compare with what’s available? There’s no comparison. House Bill 20-1410, passed by the Legislature in June, set aside not quite $20 million in federal CARES Act funds for housing assistance in Colorado. This is the main source of state housing assistance, and there are smaller municipal and county sources of funds. None of this adds up to meet the need. A wide chasm separates impending housing debts and Coloradans’ capacity to pay them.
It’s not difficult to imagine what comes next. “I anticipate there will be a spike in evictions next month,” Alison George, director of the Colorado Division of Housing, said during a State Housing Board meeting this week, according to a Newsline report. The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Fund estimates that 327,000 people in the state are at risk of eviction.
This is not the kind of crisis in which the community can leave survival to individuals. Individual well-being at pandemic scale depends on the community. And what will be left of the community if hundreds of thousands of its members are cast from their homes?
The community most responsible for providing COVID relief is that of the nation, and Republican lawmakers have shirked their responsibility. They allowed a weekly $600 supplemental unemployment payment, part of the CARES Act, to expire. And the Republican-controlled Senate adjourned on Thursday at least until Sept. 8 after failing to produce a bill that would provide desperately needed assistance to Americans — such as is contained in the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion dollar measure House Democrats passed in May.
But so far Colorado also has failed to rise to the challenge. Polis issued through executive order an eviction moratorium at the end of April, but he allowed it to expire in June. He should reinstate the moratorium, which while not a full solution in itself — tenants and homeowners even if allowed to remain housed could face impossibly large debt as rent and mortgage bills accrue — it could buy time for lawmakers to arrive at adequate long-term solutions. Polis has largely deflected responsibility for the state’s looming housing crisis. “I strongly support action by Congress to protect renters, and I also supported efforts (ultimately unsuccessful) at our state legislature to have a moratorium on evictions through November,” he tweeted in response to Denver Post reporter Alex Burness’ remark that the governor was “to the right” of Trump on evictions. “I also called for federal action in my most recent letter to our federal delegation.”
I strongly support action by Congress to protect renters, and I also supported efforts (ultimately unsuccessful) at our state legislature to have a moratorium on evictions through November. I also called for federal action in my most recent letter to our federal delegation.
— Jared Polis (@jaredpolis) August 3, 2020
Blame Congress. Blame the Legislature. Meanwhile Colorado families wonder how long they’ll have a roof over their heads.
State officials should pursue every opportunity to direct funds to housing assistance. Samuel Betters, a State Housing Board member, acknowledged the prospect of new options this week during the meeting with George. “I’m wondering if it is time for us to start having a discussion about maybe shifting priorities at the state level,” he said, adding, in language with which no one can disagree, “The consequences of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans losing their housing is not good.”
Other states have enjoyed better leadership in this area. Even Florida under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis put $250 million toward an affordable housing coronavirus relief initiative, coupled with an eviction moratorium. Houston alone has put $20 million toward rent relief.
Federal lawmakers have shamed themselves by neglecting to help Americans get through the pandemic with at least the benefit of secure housing. Colorado officials risk equal shame if they fail to do the same.