Colorado evictions rise as rental assistance begins to end
Colorado evictions rise as rental assistance begins to end
Charlene Winn moved from the streets to her apartment in the Lowry five years ago. It wasn’t a palace—a small kitchen and living room, her bedroom, a bathroom—but it was a home, her home. Winn worked hard to get it: she spent four years away from home, going from resource to resource, looking for a job and an apartment she could afford.
She found both, working part-time at the Dollar Tree and living in an affordable unit a few blocks from East Colfax. Then the pandemic hit and she lost her job. Her rent went up $150, a steep spike for someone on a fixed income, and her debt increased.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep because it was like – I feel like I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing because if I dare to sleep, I have to get up and try to do something to make things right. You can’t sleep with something like that on your mind.”
After being served with a claim for unpaid rent, Winn was connected through a community group to the state’s emergency rental assistance program, which paid nearly $10,000 and covered her until November. She won’t need more than that: she’s caught now, and two new part-time jobs will cover her progress.
“I can wake up and go to sleep now and wake up knowing that I have a place to stay, that everything is going to be okay,” Winn said. “Winter is coming, I won’t be in the cold. When my grandchildren visit, they have a place to come in and sit.”
Winn is one of more than 34,000 Colorado households that have benefited from emergency rental assistance since the pandemic began. The state has spent more than $290 million in federal money to keep those residents housed, and local governments have chipped in millions more.
But funds are running out.
State officials estimate that rental assistance will end at some point in early 2023. Some local programs are already dry, like Aurora, and others, like Denver, are starting to impose limits.
At the same time, state and local data show that evictions are returning to pre-pandemic levels. As of June, Colorado eviction filings are higher than they have been in nearly three years in 2020: More than 3,000 evictions were filed in each of those months; that level has not been reached since February 2020, state data show.
The money is still available, and officials have urged tenants in need to apply. But once it’s gone, there’s no way to fully replace it, state and local officials said. Federal pockets are far deeper than any here, and the protection the money offers — 18 months of rental assistance for qualifying households — can’t be replicated.
“Right now, we have unprecedented financial support for renters who are unable to meet their monthly rental obligations,” said Zach Neumann, executive director of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. “At some point, early next year, that money will basically be used up, and when that happens, one of the primary tools we’ve had to stop evictions will be gone, and it’s not really clear what happens after that.”
The forecast changes depending on who you talk to. Neumann said that in other states that have run out of rental assistance money, evictions have increased. Emily Goodman, who works for the East Colfax Community Collective to help tenants get help and support housing, said the effect of the money drying up would be “unreal.”
But Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of the Metro Denver Apartment Association, dismissed those concerns as overblown. He said there were repeated fears of a “tsunami of evictions” during the pandemic, disasters that never materialized. What’s happening now, he said, is a return to the normal range of evictions, not a seismic shock to the system, and rental assistance money isn’t needed the way it was during the worst of the pandemic.
But, as advocates noted, those early warnings came when rental assistance and a constellation of state and federal eviction moratoriums that further protected at-risk tenants were available. Hamrick countered that these happened in steps from the beginning and that the evictions were not sudden in the interim between programs.
“I guess it’s okay for people who think it’s okay to mess with the economy to sit back and say, ‘This is the result of everything we’ve done,'” he said. “This is a slow, steady, methodical return to normalcy in housing markets, and that’s a very, very good thing.”
Other experts were less quick to advance. Peter LiFari, who runs Maiker Housing Partners in Adams County, said expiring rental assistance money “needs to be replaced.” Without that, he said, evictions will increase, and homelessness and displacement will follow. Part of the ground gained during the pandemic will be lost.
Full replacement cannot be done locally, officials say. The state provides $15 million to $20 million a month in federal rental assistance, said Sarah Buss, who until Friday was director of the state’s Office of Housing Recovery. State officials hope to find ways to provide that amount throughout the year, rather than every 30 days.
The best replacement would be an additional infusion from Congress, officials said. But with President Joe Biden declaring the pandemic “over” and the stalling of other COVID-related funding in Congress, that path seems unlikely, too.
The situation is similar in Denver: The city has been awarded nearly $49 million in total funding for emergency rental assistance, said Melissa Thate, the city’s director of housing stability. That’s “significantly more” than the city has previously had to support similar efforts, she said. While the availability of that money meant the city’s existing rent and utility assistance program was unused, that program is funded only in part by federal efforts and offers short-term support.
Instead, state and local officials are looking at what to do with what they have. Denver is expanding its eviction legal aid program, Thate said, and is considering other permanent programs. The state is working “diligently” to replace current aid, at least to some extent, Buss said, but nothing concrete has been developed yet. In Aurora, officials are looking at ways to provide more local support, but are waiting to see the level of need, said the city’s manager of housing and community development.
LiFari hoped the state could avoid a setback. The various measures implemented since the start of the pandemic have helped and will likely continue to help, keeping evictions lower than they otherwise would have been.
“Overall, we’re in a better place than we were three years ago,” he said, “but where we were three years ago was so unsustainable.”
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