‘One step forward and two steps back’: Navigating housing instability during the pandemic

40.4% of Coloradans are behind on rent or mortgage with eviction or foreclosure looming

Erika Joye, a resident of Lyons, sits on her couch while her two children play outside on Nov. 17, 2020. (Moe Clark, Colorado Newsline)

Prior to the pandemic, Erika Joye had never missed a rent payment. 

She moved to Lyons in July with her two kids after going through a lengthy — and expensive — divorce. Soon after moving, her 9-year-old son got bit by a rattlesnake and spent three days in an intensive care unit. She had gotten a job with the Census Bureau, but it fell through after her background check didn’t come back in time. Then, she had to pay $900 to replace her car brakes. 

“Things were already really difficult, then all these things just came together all at once,” said Joye, who received an eviction notice on her door in mid-August. Though she’s been able to make her rent payments since, she still owes for August. The economic crisis spurred by the virus has made it increasingly harder for her to get back on her feet and remain in her home. “It just feels like I can’t get ahead of the game. I can’t even catch up. I can’t even walk on the field,” she said.

Things were already really difficult, then all these things just came together all at once.” – Erika Joye, who received an eviction notice on her door in August. 

In Colorado, 40.4% of adults are behind on their rent or mortgage payments with eviction or foreclosure in the next two months very likely or somewhat likely, according to the Census Bureau’s latest weekly Household Pulse Survey. Though the anticipated tsunami of coronavirus-related evictions has yet to hit the state, housing advocates stress that it’s only a matter of time as coronavirus cases soar and threaten more shutdowns, state and federal eviction moratoriums wind down and current rental assistance programs dry up.

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“Without further policy intervention, we will likely have hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who owe back rent and can face immediate eviction or expulsion from their property if they aren’t able to tender full amounts of back rent,” said Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, who specializes in housing issues.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis announced he is convening a special legislative session in the coming weeks to address housing assistance, child care and small business relief. The regular session is scheduled to convene on Jan. 13, 2021.

Jared Polis
Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a news briefing at the Governor’s Mansion on Nov. 17, 2020. Polis said he would call a legislative special session on coronavirus relief. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“Frankly, January will be too late for too many small businesses, restaurants, bars and too many Coloradans that are on the brink of eviction and foreclosure,” said state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the House speaker-elect. “We just can’t wait any longer for Congress to act.”

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia said that the legislature during the special session will focus primarily on direct stimulus for Coloradans and that more permanent housing solutions will likely be discussed during the regular session.

“It’s the most effective and efficient way for us to operate as a general assembly if we have a timeline that’s within three or four days,” Garcia said. “If you start to add in a whole lot, it just can’t functionally work that way.”

Trying to stay in her housing ‘a full time job’

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was announced in September, Joye immediately submitted the necessary declaration form to her landlord. But on Sept. 15, she got another eviction notice — this time for a lease violation. The notice said she had 24 hours to remove the toys and bikes from her front porch.

“Everyone has bikes on their porch, but I was the only one who got the lease violation,” she said. “So it felt very retaliatory, and like she was trying to get around the moratorium.”

She got another eviction notice on Oct. 2 for her missed August payment. “I don’t know if the landlord didn’t see the email I sent with the declaration form, but I have a hard time believing that because I got the second notice, with the lease violation,” she said.

A small housing complex in Lyons, as seen in November 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

On Oct. 14, she re-sent the original CDC declaration form to her landlord. In the same email, she asked if the landlord would consider applying to the state’s Property Owner Preservation program, which allows landlords to obtain rental assistance on behalf of their tenants. In an email on Nov. 11, the property manager said Joye should “continue to look for other options.”

“So I’m taking that as a no, because I’m just getting the runaround,” Joye said. 

In an email on Oct. 16, the property manager for River Cliff Realty, LLC, March Chapman, said that Joye was receiving a 10-day notice for a lease violation for failure to transfer the gas utility into her name and because she was behind on her utility bill. “And that felt again like that was just another way to kind of go around that moratorium,” Joye said.

Chapman did not respond to an email request for comment.

The following week, Joye went to the Lyons utilities office to pay her outstanding utility bill. The woman working at the counter told her to keep her money and visit the office of the Lyons Emergency & Assistance Fund. She did, and the director wrote her a check to cover her utility bill. 

She said it brought tears to her eyes.

“For once, it was so easy. Which was really nice because things have not been very easy working through the system and finding support,” said Joye. “It’s been a full-time job.”

Erika Joye sits on her front porch in Lyons with her two children on Nov. 17, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

She emailed her landlord letting her know that the utilities were taken care of. 

She’s been able to keep up with her rental payments since the one she missed in August. But she’s been getting a $10 late fee every day that the August rent payment has been late. “So I actually probably owe more now in late fees than I do for what was actually missed,” she said. “It’s like one step forward and two steps back.”

A month ago, Polis issued an executive order banning forthcoming and accumulated late fees for Colorado renters through the end of the year. Joye said she saw the announcement, but is scared to bring it up to her landlord. “If I go, ‘Oh hey, by the way, this order was just issued’ … What is she going to come with? What am I going to hear next?” she said.

She said trying to access housing assistance has become a full-time job and that constantly having to prove that she deserves help has been exhausting. 

“There’s a lot of days where it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning because I don’t want to try just to have another door slammed,” Joye said. “I can’t help thinking I’ve failed here. That I’ve screwed up. And I can kind of get out of that and be like, well, there’s a lot going on here in the world. But it’s hard.” 

When Joye received the first eviction notice in August, she contacted the OUR organization in Longmont. A case worker helped her apply for rental assistance through the Boulder County Department of Human Services. But she was told she needed to apply first to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. She’s still waiting to do an interview to see if she qualifies. 

“I’m getting really nervous now because rent is going to be due again soon,” she said. “I have to be in Lyons because of our custody agreement, and there is no other affordable housing here. I have to be here.”

She applied recently for a job as a contact tracer in Boulder County and was notified this week that she made it through the first round. She’s also considering going back to working in education. She’s worked for years as a school psychologist for the Denver Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District.

Erika Joye stand in front of her home in Lyons with her two children on Nov. 17, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“I have a lot of experience. But I also have taken off some time to be home with my kids the past couple years and then going through this horrific divorce. So it’s hard to get back up on my feet and get moving, and then get knocked down.”

She said juggling remote learning during the pandemic makes it almost impossible for a single parent to get a traditional 9-to-5 job.

“For women especially, who are the primary caregiver, it’s extremely difficult,” she said. “Everything is so up in the air. If you’re the primary caregiver, you’re pretty much stuck. Child care costs more than what I’d be making at a job.

Housing advocates push for more permanent solutions to protect renters

Since the pandemic started, Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, a housing organizer for the Colorado chapter of the national nonprofit 9to5, has been getting nonstop calls from people looking for financial assistance and help navigating the eviction process.

“When we had a mayor and a governor who were coming out and saying, ‘No one is going to lose their housing,’ that wasn’t necessarily true.”Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo, a housing organizer with the nonprofit 9to5

“When we had a mayor and a governor who were coming out and saying, ‘No one is going to lose their housing,’ that wasn’t necessarily true,” Trejo said. “Maybe the sheriffs were not carrying out evictions for a while, and the courts were not moving, but that didn’t mean that people had automatic protection. People didn’t know what that meant and there was a lot of confusion and a lot of questions.”

In addition to more rental assistance, she hopes lawmakers this session extend and strengthen the current eviction moratorium and remove some of the administrative barriers that block renters from accessing housing assistance. 

“The federal government has definitely not offered any second round of stimulus help. And not everybody qualifies to get that type of direct funding anyway,” Trejo said. “There are always renters and working class people that are carved out.”

A rental unit in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Aug. 7, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Regenbogen, with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, wants to see rental payment plans addressed during the next legislative session.

“Even if Congress appropriated a trillion dollars today to help tenants pay their rent, Colorado landlords aren’t required to accept it,” he said. “They only have to accept back rent for the duration that a rent demand is pending. So it’s a 10-day demand typically, lately it’s been 30 days, but that’s the only time that a tenant has legally to cure.” 

Regenbogen said that the reasons a landlord might not accept back rent vary. “The landlord might just not like the tenant for personal reasons, or maybe discriminatory reasons, so they’re using non-payment of rent as an excuse to evict the tenant,” he explained. “But the other reason, an equally perverse reason, is that some leases will include what’s called liquidated damages clauses.”

Liquidated damages clauses specify a predetermined amount of money that a tenant must pay in the event of an eviction, on top of back rent and late fees, Regenbogen explained.

“When we read about the number of eviction filings, those are just cases that involve the court process. The number of people who have been displaced is actually much higher.”Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy 

“Theoretically, this is meant to reimburse a landlord for whatever expenses they’ve incurred as a result of the eviction,” he said. “But the problem is, in most cases, the landlord is already entitled to reimbursement because they can recoup the attorney fees. So what this does is it creates a perverse incentive, where the landlord actually stands to profit and to gain more money by carrying out the eviction as they would with accepting back payment.”

Regenbogen would also like to see more enforcement for landlords who conduct illegal evictions. 

“When a landlord does illegally evict a tenant without a court order, whether that be by changing the locks, shutting off the utilities, repeated harassment, or by intimidation, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for tenants to receive any recourse,” he said.

“When we read about the number of eviction filings, those are just cases that involve the court process. The number of people who have been displaced is actually much higher,” he added. “There is a Colorado law that says that you need a court order in order to carry out an eviction, with few limited exceptions. But there’s not great enforcement around that law.”