Housing priorities failed at the Colorado Capitol. Here’s why, and what’s next.
Bills on land use, rent control and ‘just cause’ eviction died in the Senate this year. But advocates say the proposals will reappear in future sessions.
A view of the Colorado Capitol on Sept. 30, 2022. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
At the start of this year’s legislative session, Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis set up expectations for it to be the year of big housing policy.
In his State of the State address to the General Assembly in January, Polis used the word “housing” three dozen times, saying that the “people of Colorado expect us to deliver to make housing more affordable.”
“If we don’t act now, we will soon face the point of no return,” he said.
House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senate President Steve Fenberg, who oversaw historic Democratic majorities in the Legislature this year, also emphasized housing in their opening-day speeches, remarking that Colorado doesn’t want to “end up” like the housing crisis-burdened San Francisco, that local governments need help preserving their housing stock, and that addressing the state’s housing shortage was a legislative priority.
It didn’t exactly pan out as leaders hoped.
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The session’s major housing policy proposal — a land use reform bill that was introduced as a way to effectively eliminate single-family zoning in many parts of the state and create a zoning floor to enable so-called middle housing — died on the last night of session, after being introduced in late March, getting gutted in the Senate and then being partially restored in the House.
From the start, that land use bill faced intense opposition from local governments, headed by the Colorado Municipal League, and it could not garner enough support from key Senate Democrats to make it out of the General Assembly in any form.
“I don’t think anyone underestimated the opposition. I think changing the status quo is hard. The first step of changing the status quo is acknowledging that the status quo isn’t working. I think there’s a growing consensus that that’s the case,” Polis said in a post-session press conference about the land use bill failure, framing the larger housing conversation as one that will take place over the multiple sessions during his second term.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” he said. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”
Some housing bills land on governor’s desk
The Legislature was successful in passing some policy directly related to housing and increasing supply.
House Bill 23-1190 will give local governments the right of first refusal on certain housing developments up for sale in order to convert them to affordable housing. Senate Bill 23-1 provides money to the Public-Private Partnership Office to encourage affordable workforce housing on state-owned land. And House Bill 23-1253 will set up a task force to study corporate ownership of housing.
“We took significant steps forward that I think are going to make people’s lives better, yet there’s still work to be done. Obviously we had some big losses. Change that significant takes a while,” Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, told Colorado Newsline.
We came in with a very young, diverse and bold freshman class and really ambitious policy goals. The likelihood that they were all going to make it was slim because big changes are hard.
– Rep. Stephanie Vigil, of Colorado Springs
Even with those success, some lawmakers and advocates say the Legislature did not get enough work done for a key sector of Coloradans: those who rent. Instead, the legislative momentum fell behind wealthier people who own their homes, case in point being the property tax bill ushered through at the very end of session.
“We’ve been talking about the eviction crisis that’s been happening with higher numbers than pre-pandemic levels,” Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said at an event hosted by the Community Economic Defense Project last week, referring to the tenant’s rights priorities of some progressive lawmakers. “And then folks started getting their property tax assessments, and they started emailing their legislators and with a quickness in the late days of the legislative session — and (as lawmakers) we said ‘We have to do something.’”
That’s exactly what happened.
The Legislature introduced, amended and passed Senate Bill 23-303 in the final week of the session to refer a measure on the November ballot that would reduce the property tax rate over 10 years. That ballot measure largely benefits homeowners, though some lawmakers have said they hope landlords would pass savings to renters.
“I don’t mean to imply that it’s money in a renter’s pocket,” McCluskie told reporters earlier this month. “But while it may not feel like a direct benefit, I do hope that by bringing down property taxes overall, everyone at least feels some sort of relief. There’s more work to do on this front, no doubt.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 34% of households in Colorado are renters. In Denver, rents have doubled in the last 12 years and evictions are on the rise.
Those were issues that several progressive freshmen Democrats ran on.
But the two most significant tenants’ rights bills — the ones advocates say would bring transformative change — both failed in the Senate after making it through that more progressive House.
“We have some cause for discouragement for sure. Some things did not pan out. At the same time, we came in with a very young, diverse and bold freshman class and really ambitious policy goals. The likelihood that they were all going to make it was slim because big changes are hard,” Rep. Stephanie Vigil, a Colorado Springs Democrat and renter, told Colorado Newsline.
House Bill 23-1171 was a major piece in the progressive Democratic housing policy push this year. It would have prohibited landlords from evicting tenants without just cause, such as if they clearly break the lease agreement. Supporters say such a policy would give renters greater housing security and empower them to hold landlords accountable without fear of retaliation. After passing the House with a bipartisan 52-12 vote, the bill died on the Senate calendar when the chamber did not take it up for debate in the last days of the session.
“This bill stood for the simple notion that landlords should not be able to evict tenants without cause. Our communities are being uprooted by the housing crisis, this anti displacement policy would have kept Coloradans housed,” bill sponsor Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat, tweeted after the Senate ran out of time to pass the bill.
House Bill 23-1115, also sponsored by Mabrey, would have allowed local governments to enact rent stabilization policies by lifting a statewide preemption. It passed the House on a 40-24 vote, with the more conservative Democrats voting against it, before dying in a Senate committee at the end of April. Avon Democrat Sen. Dylan Roberts cast the deciding vote against the bill in committee.
The lawmakers behind HB23-1171 and HB23-1115 have indicated that they will bring the bills forward again next session. Those bills were the ones that would have brought “systemic changes that would change that balance of power between renters and landlords,” Melissa Mejía, the state and local policy director for the CEDP, told Colorado Newsline.
“We saw something like just cause get a lot of support coming out of the House. We turned out a lot of people to testify, passed with a significant margin and then just absolutely could not make it out of the Senate,” she said.
The difference between the House and Senate in handling housing policy this year was obvious.
“The Senate was a buzz saw for structural change,” CEDP’s co-founder and CEO Zach Neumann said.
Smaller successes for rental bills
While some of the headline legislation for renters did not make it through this year, other bills did, though they were narrower in scope and focused on problems within the existing system. Most of them have not yet been signed by the governor.
House Bill 23-1120 will require a landlord and tenant to participate in mediation before an attempted eviction if the tenant receives supplemental security income, federal social security disability insurance, or cash assistance through the Colorado Works program.
House Bill 23-1186 will allow Coloradans to participate virtually in eviction proceedings.
House Bill 23-1068 limits security deposits and rent for pets and prohibits dog breed restrictions for obtaining insurance.
House Bill 23-1099 lets renters use the same rental application screening report for 30 days, eliminating the cost burden that comes with applying to multiple residences at once. Polis signed the bill into law on May 4.
“It’s maybe not a seismic shift, but it’s a way we can make the playing field a little bit closer to the level that landlords say it is now,” Vigil, who sponsored HB-1099, said.
Additionally, Senate Bill 23-184 caps income requirements for renters at two times the monthly rent. Right now, most landlords require prospective tenants to make at least three times the monthly rent, which can be prohibitive as rents increase but wages stagnate. It applies that limit to security deposits as well. The bill was amended to remove a provision that would have required landlords to accept the first eligible tenant, but the intention of the legislation is intact.
“You have people simply not qualifying to even apply to rentals. Now, at least we’re giving them a shot to qualify because we know these folks are responsible, they’re hardworking, they’re going to pay their rent on time. They just need a shot,” Winter, the bill’s sponsor, said.
“At the same time, we need just cause. We need to look at the other bills we lost. We need to talk about land use that gets us to more density and better transit,” she said. ”Any major issue we work on is iterative.”
It is almost certain that the work on housing and tenants’ rights will continue to be a priority in upcoming lawmaking terms, and advocates hope that as they shine a light on the challenges unique to renters, elected officials will move to support legislation that disrupts the current system, rather than slowly erode it from the edges.
And while major land use reforms and policies to increase supply are likely part of the solution, that development will take years. Many of the progressive housing bills this year operated on the assumption that many people cannot wait for affordable housing to be built — they are being priced out, evicted and left without options right now.
“There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem and how urgent it is,” Mejía, with CEDP, said. “It is too far removed from the lives of the people who are making decisions at the Legislature, so it doesn’t feel like a problem that needs to be solved now or that big of a problem at all.”
The effort is around stabilizing communities while longer-term investments take effect.
“I think the lesson for us is that we have to organize harder, we have to build bigger coalitions, we have to engage more with members of the Legislature,” Neumann said. “At the same time, I think the Legislature needs to do a much better job of listening.”
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