Any time Cesiah Guadarrama Trejo’s phone rings early in the morning or late into the night, she knows it isn’t good.
The calls to Guadarrama Trejo, who is associate state director for the working women’s advocacy group 9to5 Colorado, are almost always from panicked renters or mobile-home owners who are facing eviction or at risk of losing their home.
“A lot of people were already having to make a hard decision between paying rent or putting food on the table before the pandemic,” Guadarrama Trejo said, who has worked for the organization for four years. “But now, that number, it has grown so much more, particularly for women of color and their children.”
A slew of measures being discussed at the Colorado Legislature this year aim to permanently strengthen legal protections for Colorado renters by putting limits on how much a landlord can charge in rental late fees, extending grace periods for paying back owed rent, and rebalancing the legal power tenants have when facing an eviction or challenging their landlords in court for uninhabitable living conditions.
Senate Bill 21-173 moved forward on Tuesday after a lengthy public testimony period in the Senate State, Veterans, & Military Affairs committee. The bill heads next to the Appropriations Committee. If approved, lawmakers will then debate the bill on the Senate floor. The legislation, which is being brought by four members of the Colorado Democratic Latino Caucus, will likely face opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats in the state legislature.
“You can’t say that you care about racial justice or Black Lives Matter, or even equal pay for equal work, all of those things, without talking about housing justice,” Guadarrama Trejo said.
“With everything that has happened in the past 12 months and as we continue to see the way people of color are always disproportionately impacted, when (lawmakers’) votes don’t reflect things to uplift them and keep them housed, then I just feel like they’re just words that you’re just saying,” she added.
One of the least friendly states for renters
The bill is strongly opposed by a handful of powerful landlord associations, including the Colorado Apartment Association, Colorado Association of Realtors, Colorado Landlord Legislative Coalition and the Rocky Mountain Home Association.
“We too are in the business of trying to keep people housed and I applaud the sponsors in their sincere attempt to do this,” Andrew Hamrick, general counsel and senior vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association, said during the bill hearing on Tuesday. “But the bill creates some unintended consequences that will have the exact opposite effect.”
The CAA opposed the statewide eviction moratorium during the pandemic and joined a national lawsuit to strike down the federal ban, saying that the measure was a government overreach and that people could remain in their homes with the help of state and federal rental assistance, despite significant lags in funds being distributed. Prior to joining CAA, Hamrick was an attorney for the law firm Tschetter Sulzer, which self advertises as “Colorado’s #1 Landlord Firm” and “#1 in Colorado Evictions.”
Colorado ranks as one of the least friendly states for renters in terms of laws governing security deposits, rent increases and evictions, according to a 2019 analysis by the Rental Housing Journal. At the same time, Colorado ranks No. 9 in the country for having the largest gap between renter’s income and housing cost, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“We live in a state where landlord tenant law has for the past 100 years been incredibly favorable to landlords, and even small changes that bring Colorado law in line with what you see around the country feel very dramatic to groups like the Apartment Association,” said Zach Neumann, a lawyer who founded and directs the Colorado-based COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.
More time to pay owed rent
If passed, the bill would allow tenants to pay any owed rent to their landlord up until the day that a court has ordered a writ of restitution (the document that allows the sheriff’s office to remove someone from their home). Current law states that landlords are not required to accept past rent owed once an eviction has been filed in court.
“We believe that renters should be allowed to stop the eviction process by just paying the landlord what they owe,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Dominick Moreno and Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Yadira Caraveo.
Catherine Azar, a 71-year-old Colorado renter who was evicted earlier this year, testified during the bill hearing that she was forced to vacate her home in order to avoid having an eviction on her record.
“My work got shut down in mid-March and I applied for unemployment,” she told lawmakers on Tuesday. “The unemployment system was completely overwhelmed and very broken, and the unemployment was not coming through. My property manager and landlords assured me that they were not going to evict me. But they got tired of waiting.”
She said when the statewide moratorium expired in January, she received a 30-day eviction notice.
“I had been also accused of taking advantage of the system and not paying because I didn’t feel like it and not because I didn’t have the money,” Azar said.
“And so the owners asked me to move out of the house a week before the end of the 30-day notice,” she added. “I’ve been in hotels. I’ve slept in my car. I’ve had friends house me. I have a very uncertain future.”
Limits on late fees
The proposed bill would also ban landlords from charging a tenant or mobile-home owner a late fee unless rent is at least 14 days late; mandate that the fee not exceed $20 or 2.5% of the rent that’s past due; and prohibit a landlord from initiating an eviction solely for late fees alone.
Capping late fees, which are currently unregulated, and extending grace periods for paying back rent were two recommendations that were put forth in October by a Special Eviction Prevention Task Force, which was convened by Gov. Jared Polis.
“Renters are disproportionately younger, lower income, immigrants, and people of color, all of whom have long faced housing and other systematic barriers,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a task force member and vice president of Enterprise Community Partners Inc. in Denver. “Imposing guardrails will help ensure late fees are not used punitively and help to ensure fees do not push tenants into cycles of debt or eviction.”
Property owners and large landlords testified that smaller late fees will lead to tenants consistently not paying their rent on time.
“There’s nothing conceptually wrong with a statutory cap on late fees,” Hamrick said. “But the issue is what that cap is mandating. No late fees for 14 days or a 0% late fee for that time, followed by a 2.5% late fee is not enough to reimburse the housing provider for the cost of delinquency, and it’s not enough to discourage delinquency.”
A handful of smaller property owners, such as Darek Pacha, testified in support of the bill.
“During my first year here in Denver, I worked minimum wage jobs and struggled to come up with enough money to pay for rent,” said Pacha, who lives in Westminster and emigrated from Poland 35 years ago. “I will never forget today when I have received an eviction notice on my door, and had little or no path of recourse in the legal system. Now as a landlord myself, I’m encouraged to see this bill.”
More accountability for landlords
Other parts of the bill include eliminating a requirement that says a tenant must be up to date on their rent in order to file a legal claim against the landlord regarding uninhabitable living conditions. Similar legislation has passed in recent years in Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Dakota and California, according to Gonzales.
The bill would also add accountability and oversight measures for landlords who conduct evictions without going through the formal process.
“Under Colorado law, it is generally illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant without a court order,” said Jack Regenbogen, senior attorney for the legal advocacy group Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “In practice, however, this still happens with regularity in large part because there are not sufficient remedies available when it occurs.”
Guadarrama Trejo, with 9to5 Colorado, said that twice throughout the pandemic her organization was called by tenants being evicted outside the legal process.
“The landlord was either showing up with friends or was showing up with a moving truck and throwing things out,” Trejo said. “Other than us showing up in person, calling the media and trying to connect that person to an attorney, which tenants often don’t have access to, (the tenants’) hands are tied.”
The bill proposes that a landlord who doesn’t comply with Colorado laws must pay a $20 penalty to the tenant for each violation. If a landlord fails to address a violation, the tenant may bring a civil action to seek monetary compensation for damages, recoup legal costs or have their tenancy restored. The attorney general may also investigate and prosecute alleged violations.