A special task force was asked to create eviction prevention policies. Will it only maintain the status quo?

Recommendations will be submitted to the governor’s office for consideration by Oct. 9

An apartment building in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sept. 30, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Leanne Wheeler wasn’t surprised when she saw who Gov. Jared Polis appointed to be on his 10-person Special Eviction Prevention Task Force.

“When I saw the list of characters, and looked at the bios of who was to be involved, I thought to myself, ‘This will just be a sanctioning of doing as little as possible for the people who are most affected by the COVID pandemic,'” said Wheeler, who was notified of her own appointment to the task force after a friend called to congratulate her. 

A former Aurora City Council candidate, Air Force veteran and a housing and criminal justice advocate, Wheeler said she suspects she landed on the task force because she had been tagging Polis in Facebook posts about the state’s treatment of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

On Thursday, the task force determined a handful of policy recommendations during its final official meeting. The recommendations will be submitted as a draft report to the Department of Local Affairs and the governor’s office by Oct. 9. Throughout the meeting, members expressed frustration that the task force was not doing enough to prevent long-term hardship for renters, and that too much weight was given to landlords during the discussions.

  I'm deeply disappointed that we aren't talking about meaningful things that would really move the ball here.   -Chris Romer, former state senator

“I’m deeply disappointed that we aren’t talking about meaningful things that would really move the ball here,” Chris Romer, a former state senator and member of the task force, said during Thursday’s meeting. “Does anybody else want to really do something for people in January? Or do we just want to pass around more pieces of paper.”

During the task force’s last meeting, members voted to allow all recommendations put forward to extend until the end of the pandemic. Previously, the recommendations were written to expire by Dec. 31, 2020. 

“We fall short if we don’t go through the pandemic,” said Beatriz Gonzalez, a member of the task force and a business development officer for Bank of the West. “We were assigned to this for COVID, and we’re doing an injustice if we don’t do all of this through the pandemic.”

The state housing division has estimated that its rental and mortgage emergency funding will run out sometime in November. During the task force’s last meeting on Sept. 24, a state housing analyst estimated 70,000 additional renters will face extreme rental burdens in the coming months as households continue to deplete their savings and the federal eviction moratorium is set to lift at the end of the year.

Gov. Jared Polis gives an update on the extent of the coronavirus pandemic and the Colorado wildfires on Aug. 18, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A report released on Sept. 25 by the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimates that by January, Colorado could see 140,000 evictions and tenants could cumulatively owe between $469 million and $666 million in back rent.

Wheeler said she left the task force’s final meeting on Thursday feeling “extremely disappointed.” 

“I left disheartened at who we are as a society and who we were in this space,” she said. “But this was not unexpected. One task force wasn’t going to move the needle. There will be more people that end up being evicted and there are property owners that are just waiting for January 1.”

Task force recommendations

Recommendations approved by the task force include requiring landlords to provide information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Temporary Halt in Evictions, including the tenant declaration form, before initiating an eviction; suspending the assessment and accumulation of late fees through the pandemic for financially impacted households; and requesting more funds from the governor for housing assistance.

The CDC’s federal eviction moratorium went into effect on Sept. 4 and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2020.

The task force, which convened four times, was facilitated by Heidi Aggeler — director of Root Policy Research, a Denver-based community planning and housing research firm. Aggeler is also a member of Denver’s Planning Board.

The group also put forth three recommendations that would require legislative action, including capping late fees; extending the grace period for late fees for tenants and mobile homeowners; and exploring the possibility of a tax credit for landlords who forgive tenant’s rent during the pandemic.

“Those recommendations that the task force has provided are very much in line with what people in the housing justice space at the Capitol have been working towards, even prior to the pandemic,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat.

Policy recommendations for consideration from task force members:

  • Require landlords to provide information on the CDC Temporary Halt in Evictions, including the tenant declaration form, before initiating an eviction.
  • Suspend the assessment and accumulation of late fees through the pandemic for tenants who can demonstrate through a self-certifying form that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected their ability to pay
  • Request that the governor allocate additional funds for housing assistance and eviction prevention
  • Three recommendations for the state legislature to take up in January, including capping late fees; extending the grace period for late fees for tenants and mobile homeowners; and exploring the possibility of a tax credit for landlords who forgive tenant’s rent during the pandemic.

Gonzales said the discussion around banning late fees and grace periods is an important part of the short-term discussion given the pandemic. 

“But there are also longer term conversations that we will need to have in 2021 about the eviction process and about housing affordability writ large,” she said. “And how to create policies that support the people who are struggling on the margins.” 

She said she continues to receive emails from constituents who are anxious about what will happen next, and stressed that going back to “pre pandemic policies” will not suffice.

  What I’ve heard from my constituents who are vulnerable to eviction is a tremendous amount of confusion. Folks feel like they’re walking on quicksand.   -Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat

“What I’ve heard from my constituents who are vulnerable to eviction is a tremendous amount of confusion. Folks feel like they’re walking on quicksand,” Gonzales said. “Everything keeps changing and what we need is certainty. And because the legislature won’t be in session until January, that responsibility falls to Governor Polis.” 

Topics that the group did not have time to discuss during their final meeting included requiring landlords to establish payment plans, creating a uniform landlord code of conduct, and identifying additional resources that the state could use to provide more rental assistance after CARES Act funds expire at the end of December.

Other topics discussed included creating a uniform resource guide for renters to seek additional financial support, counseling and legal resources and a similar one for landlords and property owners, as well as establishing and funding a statewide landlord/tenant hotline. Some of the topics will be revisited at an unofficial meeting set for next week, according to Wheeler.

Push for a statewide eviction moratorium

Gonzales encouraged Polis to issue a statewide eviction moratorium. “Governor Polis should join the numerous Republican and Democratic governors across the country to provide certainty to tenants across the state of Colorado by putting forward another clear moratorium.”

The setting sun casts shadows on an apartment building in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sept. 30, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

In terms of the statewide eviction moratorium, Jennifer Rodgers, a task force member and vice president and market lead for Enterprise Community Partners Inc. in Denver, said that the moratorium would better reflect the recommendations discussed by the task force.

“I do think that there is a risk that the CDC order could get struck down in court,” Rodgers said, “so I think we need to add that protection.”

The National Apartment Association, a trade group that represents landlords and property owners, recently joined a federal lawsuit against the CDC and the Trump administration over what they consider the unconstitutional national eviction moratorium, according to a report by Market Watch.

The statewide eviction moratorium proposal brought pushback from various members, including Darren Everett, president of the Denver-based property management company BLDG Management and member of the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. 

  These things are just delaying the inevitable for a lot of people, which is that in almost every case, the landlord is going to get awarded possession. So, it's not a matter of if — but when.   -Darren Everett, task force member and president of BLDG Management

“I think it’s gonna just be further problematic for tenants and landlords alike,” Everett said, who was appointed to the task force on Sept. 16 to replace Andrew Feinstein, who resigned. “These things are just delaying the inevitable for a lot of people, which is that in almost every case, the landlord is going to get awarded possession. So, it’s not a matter of if — but when.” 

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Wheeler said Everett’s words encapsulated the sentiment that dominated the task force’s discussion. “That’s a predatory way of looking at it,” she said. “And he meant every word of that.”

Andy Newell, the CEO of the Monarch Investment & Management Group, a property management company, expressed concerns that were similar to Everett’s. “I think we should just defer to the governor on that,” he said. “I think we have to have some specific time frame, which I think it’s nice to parallel with the CDC guidelines for now.”

Wheeler said that renters facing eviction during this time are being treated similarly to people who are currently unhoused.

“When we can no longer make money off their backs, without any care or concern about what’s going on in their family as a part of our society, we just get them out of our faces,” she said.