Commentary

Gov. Polis must act to keep tenants who are waiting for rental assistance from eviction

A tenant who makes a good faith effort to obtain assistance should be protected

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

As the executive director of one of Colorado’s largest affordable housing providers and the board president of a school district serving over 36,000 students, we know first-hand the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our most marginalized communities. Many of the people we serve have disproportionately suffered the financial, health, educational and emotional strains of job loss, food insecurity, virtual learning and compounding debt, not to mention illness and the devastating loss of loved ones.

Gov. Jared Polis, in keeping with other states’ leadership, has a responsibility to help our fellow Coloradans stay in their homes and safe from the additional, long-term suffering of eviction — particularly those who are waiting on available rental assistance — while also keeping landlords solvent.

The pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated our state’s long-standing housing affordability crisis and its resultant threats to Coloradans’ housing, educational and economic stability. The evidence is heartbreaking. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 150,000 Coloradans living in rental households are behind on rent, with estimates that these renters collectively owe hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid arrearages through June. Because of enduring, systemic inequities in housing and intersectional policies, the Coloradans most impacted are disproportionately low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color households.

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Children also experience particular, lasting consequences of eviction and homelessness. Many students experiencing homelessness move in with another household, often outside their school district boundaries. At minimum, this can create significant transportation and attendance challenges, which disrupt learning. Even greater loss of learning occurs if the student must transfer to a closer school. Homelessness fosters additional burdens including stigma, misunderstanding and negative responses from peers and teachers, lacking access to computers and internet — all of which negatively affects grades and educational attainment. Compared to their stably housed peers, youth experiencing homelessness are much more likely to suffer negative educational outcomes including moving schools, dropping out, referral to truancy court, and expulsion. The families we serve are scared of what lies ahead without further intervention, and so are we.

Despite Colorado having funds to address outstanding rental debt, this money may not reach tenants and landlords in the time required to prevent eviction and its lasting harms. Many tenants and landlords alike are not yet aware that help is available, many are skeptical of accessing governmental assistance, either too proud or too scared from previous experiences to access what is legally their right. As a result, we are falling short in our efforts to connect every eligible Coloradan to rental assistance. Currently more than 10,000 applications for rental assistance are outstanding in our state’s system, with another 10,000 denied and another 3,600 awaiting response from a tenant, landlord or financial institution. Successfully applying can be particularly slow-moving for those facing language, technology, citizenship or other systemic barriers. State and local government implementers, along with community organizations working to connect tenants to rental and legal assistance, are under-resourced, stretched thin in the midst of unprecedented demand.

The families we serve are scared of what lies ahead without further intervention, and so are we.

Polis himself acknowledges the ongoing need to ensure the pace of eviction does not outstrip rental assistance. In ending many pandemic-related executive orders, the governor maintained one that requires landlords give tenants 30 days to obtain assistance and pay overdue rent before initiating an eviction, stating: “The demand for this State and federal aid has been immense, and these programs need time to provide aid to tenants.” This reality will persist past July 31, when Polis’ current order and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide eviction moratorium will simultaneously end.

The governor should therefore make a tenant’s good faith effort to obtain rental assistance a full defense to eviction for nonpayment as those other protections expire. Such an executive order would help protect some of our most marginalized renters, but also stabilize landlords and our rental economy. Indeed, many other states have already implemented similar protections and can serve as helpful models. Maiker Housing Partners has voluntarily instituted a similar policy, and has worked alongside our residents to keep them safely, stably housed through the pandemic’s other burdens. This approach benefits landlords, tenants and educators equally — we are truly in this together.

It’s up to you, Gov. Polis, to extend these assurances to tenants, landlords and educators alike, ensuring no Colorado tenant who has made a good faith effort for rental assistance is evicted. For the individuals and families affected, the consequences of inaction may well be dire, impacting not only this generation but the next.

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Peter LiFari
Peter LiFari

Peter LiFari is the executive director of Maiker Housing Partners, the public housing authority in Adams County.

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Kathy Plomer
Kathy Plomer

Kathy Plomer is the president of the Adams-12 Five Star Schools Board of Education.

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