‘Who plans this?’
The tenant is living in a three-bedroom ranch-style house off a cul-de-sac in northeast Denver. Or at least that’s where she was when I last saw her.
She was being evicted for not paying her rent on time. She could still be in town and living with family as she’d done before. Maybe renting another house or apartment, a smaller place because this is a city where it’s harder and harder to find a rent you can afford on 15 bucks an hour. Last year, she considered a converted garage off Colfax Avenue. Her son looked at it and looked at her and said, “Mom, you know it has not come to this.” It upset her because, you know, maybe it had.
The tenant had looked at dozens of places by then and considered herself lucky when she found the ranch on the cul-de-sac. Yes, at 1,100 sq. ft., it was tight for her and her two adult sons, and even with their contributions, the rent was a stretch at nearly $1,600 a month. But it had enough bedrooms and a giant backyard, and she could walk to work.
That was in late December. By the end of February, her landlord had started the eviction process. A lot can go wrong in two months.
For purposes of this story, the tenant will remain “the tenant.” No name. No details that might identify her. She says she’d never been evicted, and changed her mind about publishing her name after we’d had a few conversations, one at the home she was about to lose. Nothing could talk her out of her shame. I might argue, for reasons that will become obvious, that her embarrassment is misplaced, that there is a much larger issue here than one tenant and one late payment. But a larger issue is no less a personal one, and it’s not easy to bare oneself to public scrutiny and the unsolicited judgement that inevitably comes with it.
The tenant is far from alone in her predicament. In 2016, 8,419 eviction cases were filed in Denver County Court—up from about 7,900 in 2015. Throw in Arapahoe, El Paso, Adams and Jefferson counties, which tally cases on a fiscal rather than calendar year, and you’re looking at another 27,000 or so cases, with Arapahoe leading the pack.
Not all those cases will end in eviction. Some tenants pay what’s owed. Some landlords relent.
The city’s Sheriff’s Department posts about 300 court-ordered eviction notices a month, give or take — an average of 10 a day. But even then the landlord and tenant might strike a last-minute deal. Most times, when deputies show up to oversee an actual eviction, they find the renters already have moved on.
The tenant takes solace in knowing she’s not alone for the minute it takes her to imagine all the people entangled in 8,419 cases in Denver. How many families each filing represents, how much anxiety and begging and borrowing to catch up with the landlord, who might evict you anyway, sheriff deputy at the door, coffee table and kids’ clothes and mattresses at the curb.
“Why is the city doing this to us?” the tenant asks, and her words are more of a wail than a question. Shame engulfs her again.
“A story like this exposes all my weaknesses,” she says. “It makes me ashamed. This is not what I wanted for my life. Who plans this for your life? … I feel like I can’t breathe.”
In her need to feel safe, she says she called her mother. The tenant, in her 40s now, said, “Mom, can I go get in your bed?’” She says her mother tells her that things will get better. “That’s the only thing that keeps me going,” the tenant says, “the thought that it will get better.”
Denver city officials recently launched a strategy to try to make things better by stopping an eviction in the best-case scenario, or blunting its impact in the worst.
The strategy hinges upon the arm-in-arm work of city employees who touch some point along the path of eviction, including code inspectors, human services outreach workers, sheriff’s deputies. It calls for focusing more attention and resources on the neighborhoods where more evictions are taking place or where gentrification threatens to push out lower-income renters. Preliminary city data largely points to Westwood, Barnum, Overland and other parts of the working-class Hispanic and white neighborhoods in west and southwest Denver.
The goal is to guide people facing eviction toward shelter, food, jobs and help with other needs, including financial assistance for those who qualify and need back rent, owed utility money, deposits and such.
It’s some help – if not for this tenant, then for those who will follow because in this booming city where people are desperate for a rent that doesn’t gobble up the grocery budget, there will be another tenant. There will be more evictions. No one knows this better than a landlord.
City officials admit they embark on this coordinated effort belatedly, after seeing that other cities had incorporated eviction strategies into their affordable housing plans. They do so with the understanding that Denver cannot build its way out of its housing crisis, and that it’s cheaper to try to help someone stay in an affordable rental than help build a new one. They plan knowing that in the churn of comings and goings, eviction undermines neighborhoods, schools, families.
“Eviction has a cascading impact on people’s lives,” says city councilwoman Robin Kniech. She was at the forefront of Denver’s push for an affordable housing fund, and says that her participation in a national working group on housing made her realize that Denver had not put enough focus on eviction.
The 8,000-plus cases in Denver County Court in 2016 are “tragic numbers,” she says. “If you assume the average household in Denver is 2.2 people, then you are probably talking about 16,000 people impacted. Some of these folks are ending up homeless, some are being displaced from their communities. Some are losing their jobs because when the sheriff shows up and you have to get your stuff out and you have to be at work, you are not showing up for work that day.”
Eviction cases are down from the years of the Great Recession when they were averaging about 10,000 a year, according to Denver County Court data. The numbers have remained fairly constant over the last few years even with the population boom, though according to an analysis by Colorado Affordable Legal Services, the last quarter of 2016 saw a 10 percent jump in Denver County Court cases filed over the last quarter of 2015.
But the numbers are tough to pin down and that’s part of the problem, says Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, the lead housing organizer with 9to5 Colorado. The nonprofit has been focusing on tenants’ rights issues and eviction since 2015.
The state has no central, organized data collection system, nothing on the demographics of those evicted, on where it is happening or, critically, why. Even if the numbers remain fairly constant, what propels the numbers does not.
“We haven’t put enough resources into collecting the data. If we don’t know what the problem is, how are we going to combat it?” Chiriboga-Flor says. “It happens so quietly and the reaction to people being evicted tends to be, ‘Well, this is your fault, you shouldn’t have moved into such an expensive place or you should have kept your job or you should have found less expensive childcare.’ People treat it as though it’s a result of poverty, but it is pushing people further into poverty.”
With eviction comes a hit to credit-worthiness, an increased risk of losing a job, potential lost access to public housing and a higher risk of homelessness.
Attorney April Jones, who runs a helpline for tenants and whose small firm Colorado Affordable Legal Services focuses on tenants’ rights, says she has represented single mothers, people who are disabled, senior citizens, veterans, and people of all races in eviction court.
“It runs the gamut,” she says. “You name it. They’re just individuals who are not making a lot of money or who can’t afford to pay $2,300 for a two-bedroom apartment … This issue of housing, of adequate housing, it’s a human right. And it needs to be protected.”
The tenant’s troubles begin with the late payment of her February rent. Or with hospitalization of her son. Or with the loss of her job because she says she had to spend so much time at the hospital. She describes a conspiracy of events, a chain reaction.
The breaking point, at least from the tenant’s perspective, comes in a dispute over a past-due water bill. From the landlord’s perspective, the bill had little to do with it; the rent was already late. The person who should have paid that bill, both agree, was the previous tenant, a mom with six daughters. But the landlord evicted her, too, because, as the landlord tells me, “she moved in there and then moves in her mother, her mother’s husband and his four kids, her cousins and brothers and it ends up with 14 people in the house and they trashed it out.” She says that eviction cost her $8,000.
The landlord says the house on the cul-de-sac was the first home she owned and that she treasures it. She says she deliberately made it affordable to low-income families as a way of “helping those less fortunate to have their own place.” She is fully aware that rents throughout the city have become too high for most average working families and says she knows people are being evicted because they can’t keep paying 50, 60, 70 percent of their incomes on housing. She says she’d rather price her property a little lower and keep a tenant for 10 years than price it higher and have a tenant leave in one.
But she has been a landlord for more than 27 years now and has five rental properties. She has become weary, she says, “because of the recent ongoing problems with tenants damaging property, vandalism, not paying rent, others living in the property not being on the lease, the drugs and other issues, I have begun to understand and follow the rule of four Ts —’Tired of Tenants, Toilets and Turnover.’”
The details of the breaking point between the landlord and the tenant take us into contested territory, but it is fair to say that both believe themselves wronged and their argument over the water bill sours any chance of reconciliation. In the end, the home is the landlord’s property and the tenant did not pay the rent on time. This comes down to personal responsibility, the landlord says, affordable housing crisis or not.
The tenant, faced with bills she can’t pay and knowing how hard it will be to find another decent affordable rental with an eviction on her record, files for bankruptcy. She has filed bankruptcy in the past, each time seeking to get out from beneath her debt. The move delays the eviction, which gives her more time to search for another place to live.
In the tenant’s eyes, she is fighting for survival, plain and simple, she’s trying to keep from ending up homeless. The landlord sees this as the calculated move of someone who knows how to game the system.
“[The tenant] lived in my rent home for SIX MONTHS paying one month’s rent, because she filed BANKRUPTCY,” the landlord tells me in her email, pointing to the tenant’s multiple bankruptcies. The unpaid rent, plus attorney’s fees add up to $13,000 the landlord says the tenant owes her. “And I’m not going to get a dime of that back because where is it going to come from?”
‘Did you hear what I said?’
In mid-May, Mayor Michael Hancock opened the city’s annual housing summit by referring to the 2016 “Out of Reach” analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Nationally, a worker in a full-time job must earn $20.30 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, Hancock told the crowd. In Colorado, that wage is $21.12 per hour. In Denver, it’s $23.60 per hour. (The 2017 numbers were released last week. It’s more expensive now. The hourly wage now needed for a two-bedroom in the neighborhood in which the tenant lived is $25.19. She was earning $15 an hour.)
The rule of thumb is that rent or mortgage should take up no more than 30 percent of one’s before-tax income.
“So what does this mean for a city that is growing and experiencing some of the best economic success in the country?” Hancock asked the crowd at the summit. It means, he said, that three of four residents experiencing homelessness in Denver have jobs.
“Did you hear what I said?” Hancock continued. “Three out of four individuals experiencing homelessness are working … It means our teachers and our nurses are paying far more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. It means that young professionals and millennials and families are stuck in rentals that they can’t afford and certainly they can’t even begin to imagine home ownership. We all have someone we know, a neighbor, a friend or family member who can’t find a house to buy, had to move out of the neighborhood or worse, lost their homes.”
The mayor makes the case, as he has in the past, for Denver as an economically integrated city because such a city is also a socially, culturally and racially integrated city. It is a city in which history has not been steamrolled by gentrification, in which communities bound by a common social past, by language or tradition, remain intact and a key part of the larger identity of a place. It is a city where laborers and retail workers, teachers and artists, software engineers and executives have an equal claim on the shape of the future. “Inclusivity furthers vibrancy in our community and allows our neighborhoods and businesses to thrive,” Hancock tells me in an email.
Evictions happen in good economic times and in bad. They happen for reasons entirely within a tenant’s control and for reasons over which they have no power. But in the context of an affordable housing crisis they speak to Denver’s struggle to remain an inclusive place. The tenant’s “why is the city doing this to us?” is the lament of the dispossessed, the person who has come to believe her city sees her as disposable.
Erik Soliván, the new head of the Mayor’s Office of Housing & Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE), tells me that eviction today is a byproduct of a landscape in which first-time homebuyers aren’t going to have much luck finding anything in Denver under $350,000. In which developers responded last year by building 5,600 new rentals to capture the spillover of those shut out of homeownership. In which 8 in 10 of those new rentals were targeted at the luxury end of the market, with an average rent of $1,210 for a one-bedroom. That’s an expense “the majority of families can’t afford,” he says.
The gap between the supply for affordable housing and the demand can be quantified: We are at least 21,000 units short, according to a Denver Housing Authority study.
“Affordable” is, of course, a subjective term. But in this context, it means housing for those who earn 60 percent or less of the city’s Area Median Income or AMI. In 2017, the AMI for a four-person household in Denver is $83,900. You have a household of that size with an annual income of $50,000 or less, and you are competing with thousands of others for a place to live.
“We put it this way: We have highest inventory for the highest-income families and the lowest inventory for the lowest-income families,” Soliván says.
The less money you earn, the more likely you are to be not just a renter, but also a renter paying more of your gross household income on that rent. Seven in ten of the city’s most economically challenged renters — those earning 30 percent of AMI or less — are paying more than half of their incomes on rent, according to data analyzed by the city’s Office of Economic Development. A car breaks down, a child falls ill, the boss cuts work hours, and there is no wiggle room.
Recall that last September more than 22,000 people applied for one of what is expected to be 300 federally subsidized housing vouchers, commonly called Sec. 8 vouchers. According to DHA, 200 vouchers have been issued so far and one-third have been returned because tenants could not find an apartment within established rent limits or couldn’t find a landlord willing to accept a voucher.
The tenant used to have a Sec. 8 voucher. She’d had one since 2009. All went smoothly until, she says, her landlord decided to sell the house she’d been renting. She found another place, but in December 2015 that landlord told her he was doubling her rent. DHA gave her the full 120-day time limit to find another rental. It’s a use-it or lose-it system.
“I looked at hundreds of places,” the tenant says. “I honestly was looking in those four months. In Denver, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, Aurora. I was told that if I went to Westminster and Northglenn, I might find something. I heard that it’s cheaper, but I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t look. I’ve never really been over there. I don’t know anything about that part of town. And it’s far from the jobs I might have.”
She couldn’t find anything and turned her voucher back in last year in April.
She lived with friends, family, technically homeless. An acquaintance tipped her off that the three-bedroom on a cul-de-sac would soon be going up for rent. It was a Sec. 8 property because the landlord says it’s how she has kept it affordable for lower-income tenants. Not enough landlords accept Sec. 8 , she says, either because landlords want the higher rents the open market commands or because they have had bad experiences with Sec. 8 tenants.
In any case, two people the landlord knew vouched for the tenant, and the landlord decided to give her a chance. She says she even lowered the rent to $1,588 from $1,674.
The tenant, grateful, tells me: “I thought I would never have to move again.”
‘Traumatic as all hell’
Marry the affordable housing crisis with Colorado’s landlord-tenant laws and the problem is compounded. In Colorado, landlords can evict tenants without cause. They do not have to provide tenants with written leases or receipts of rent. They can charge what they want for application fees and late fees. They can refuse tenants with vouchers or who rely on child support or Social Security or disability. State law prohibits renters from withholding rent until landlords make needed repairs. And Colorado, like many states, has no requirement that tenants receive legal counsel or representation in eviction cases. Also as in many states, the only lawyer most Coloradans facing eviction meet upon going to court is the landlords’.
The nonprofits Enterprise Community Partners and Make Room Colorado have proposed several policy solutions in Colorado based on what other states have done. Much of what is needed is not within Denver’s power to change. Councilwoman Kniech says the city is contemplating two of the groups’ recommendations: providing pro-bono legal counsel to tenants in eviction court and creating a landlord registry that would make it easier to track problem landlords and would ensure that rentals meet health and safety standards. The city of Boulder has such a registry and it requires that every rental property be licensed and inspected.
The state legislature this year did manage to pass a bill that extends notification for rent increases or lease termination on month-to-month leases from seven to 21 days, though that doesn’t affect eviction actions. Even then, most states require 30-days’ notice, according to the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, which worked with Democrat and Republican lawmakers on the legislation.
Landlords are not looking for excuses to raise the rent in a hot housing market and kick people out, says Nancy Burke, vice-president of Government and Community Affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.
“Sometimes people make us look like the big bad landlords,” she says, noting that filing evictions costs landlords money as does turning over a property for a new tenant. “If we have a choice, we would rather have a tenant stay.”
The association has put together a renter’s guide, which is in English and Spanish and downloadable from its site. It also publishes a guide for nonprofits and charities offering assistance, and provides free landlord education. Burke says the association wants better coordination with the city and tenants’ groups so that renters and landlords know their rights and responsibilities. During the foreclosure crisis, she says, investors snapped up bank-owned houses, turned them into rentals and became “accidental landlords.” The lessons of that time still hold true, she says.
“If you have someone who is a landlord who doesn’t know [the law] and a tenant who doesn’t know, that spells disaster, and 98 percent of the time, it’s a lack of communication.”
Once the eviction ball starts rolling in Colorado, it can roll fast. A typical eviction process can take a month. If a tenant wants to answer the landlord’s complaint, that may add another week and cost the renter $96, though the court can waive the fee. If the case goes to trial, then it takes a little more time, particularly with continuances, but those are rare and usually only stretch the case out for another five days.
But the reality is most people being evicted don’t answer the complaint and summons to appear in court, says Judge Clarisse Gonzales, who presided over eviction cases for two years in Denver County Court and has been helping the city shape its new strategy to reduce evictions. She says tenants may have already moved on and think they’ve resolved the issue by doing so. Some are intimidated by legal action and coming to court. Some may not understand the summons and complaint, which is officially called Forcible Entry and Detainer. In a no-show, the landlord wins back possession of the property by default and tenants wind up with a recorded eviction in court and on their credit reports.
“People don’t show up because they don’t know the consequences,” Denver renter Jenee Donalson tells me. Donalson was evicted in 2012 and did not answer the court summons. “When you post paperwork to someone’s door about them losing their home, it’s incredibly unclear as to where their power is. It’s so unclear as to what they can do to stop it from happening. You do that to people, you are overwhelming them … When I saw the paper stuck to my door, all I saw was ‘Eviction.’ I couldn’t read the small print. It was traumatic as all hell.”
Of the tenants who do show up in court, says Judge Gonzales, few choose to file an answer to the complaint. Fewer still ask for a trial. Maybe two percent have their own lawyers, Gonzales says.
“Once that judgement for possession enters, it’s devastating,” she says. It may knock the poor out of the running for public housing, and in this market, she says, why would landlords choose someone who has an eviction over someone who doesn’t?
On the docket
It is a Wednesday in late April and a busy day for evictions because Tschetter, Hamrick and Sulzer, which touts itself as “Colorado’s #1 landlord firm and #1 in Colorado evictions,” is in Denver County Court. I tried talking to Andrew Hamrick of the group. He was cordial, but referred me to someone else at the firm who passed me on to Burke at the Apartment Association.
On the docket are 167 eviction cases against tenants. More specifically, 167 tenants were ordered to appear in court; 103 fail to appear. The landlords’ attorneys wait in Room 164 for the tenants who do answer the summonses. Room 164 has a couple desks for lawyers and defendants, and a row of pews facing a screen upon which loops a video featuring Judge Gonzales and two of her colleagues describing the eviction court process.
Lawyer and tenant talk, hoping to reach an agreement on the terms of departure. It’s the tenant’s best shot at negotiating some extra time to move or at persuading the landlord to rescind the eviction in exchange for settling up. They are, by and large, stipulation agreements in which the tenant agrees to his or her own eviction and wagers upon the landlords’ good graces and desire to get paid to keep from being kicked out. No one I see that day or the other two mornings I am there is represented by a lawyer. A woman I speak with after the fact thinks the lawyer she spoke to was a “district attorney.”
Agreements made, the tenants head to one of the three courtrooms where eviction cases are heard. One tenant after another appears in front of Judge Doris Burd or Judge Brian Campbell or Judge John Marcucci. A few years back, the judges started requiring that tenants appear before them to make sure they understand the stipulation agreements they’d reached. They do what they can to put tenants at ease. Marcucci banters from the bench, practiced in his message, which he repeats to almost every renter before him.
“I try to put it in laypeople’s terms and this seems to make sense,” he says to a woman standing at the lectern at the front of the courtroom. “You could show up with a bucket of money and they could say, ‘We don’t want your money. You’re out.’ And you have to move.”
The woman says she understands.
Everyone before Judge Marcucci says they understand. Everyone before him also says they hope to stay in their apartments or home, and that once they settle up, the landlord will let them stay. Maybe, Marcucci says. But sometimes the landlord says one thing and you hear another.
“As long as you understand,” the judge says. He tells her he doesn’t want her coming back and saying, well, Judge, you said I could stay if I took care of things.
The woman says she understands. She says she sees the judge as the “innocent party” in this matter. No, Marcucci says.
“I told this to many people this morning,” he tells her. “My goal as a citizen of Denver and hopefully, as a regular, nice Joe, is I hope our citizens can stay in their places because it’s your home and our community is better if people are safe in their homes and comfortable. But as a judge, I can’t prefer the fact I want you to stay in your nice home versus the landlord’s right to get paid. Because there would be chaos if people didn’t have to pay their rent. Right?”
A woman named Machela Polk appears with a friend who is helping her because Machela is blind. She also has leukemia, but I only find that out later, from her friend. Machela tells me later that when she signed her year-long lease in a brand new apartment building for low-income residents in December, she thought her $796-a-month rent was subsidized and her share would be lower. It’s not. Every month since, she says, she has narrowly skirted eviction.
She can’t afford where she lives, but doesn’t know where else to go. She’s 26 years old and says she has spent too much time in shelters. She doesn’t want to go back.
“It’s day by day,” she tells me. “And even though I fight to pay the rent for this apartment, it’s mine.”
Judge Marcucci asks Machela if she receives disability payments of any kind. Yes, she says. He does not ask her what percentage of her income goes to rent. Had he, she would have told him 77 percent. She might have told him that she’s living on borrowed money and food banks. She might have said she’s started pawning her belongings.
It goes like this for an hour or so. Marcucci giving his bucket-of-money example. Everyone saying yes, sir, I understand. Sometimes he asks people how long they’ve lived in their places and if they have somewhere to go. Sometimes he asks what went wrong. A man says his car broke down and he had to use the rent money to get it fixed. A woman says her brother died and she had to pay for the funeral. There’s an efficiency to the proceedings that belies whatever chaos may have led these renters to this point and whatever chaos may follow.
“Did you read this agreement you signed?”
“Do you have any questions about it?”
”Do you know where you are and what you are doing?”
“You signed it voluntarily?”
“And you understand that you are granting the landlord judgement for possession?”
“And even if you intend to stay there, they could say they don’t want your money, you need to move.”
“Are you hoping to stay?”
Connecting the dots
No one agency, no one department, no one nonprofit or developer is going to make a dent in a challenge of this scale, Soliván says.
“To help that family that is going to get evicted, who is going to have to find another unit, who is going to end up paying far more than that 30 percent of their income on housing, we [as a city] have to connect the dots,” he says. “We are going to have to work on this together. We have to talk to the courts about how we address it at the end of the eviction process and we have to move upstream to look at how we prevent that eviction from happening.”
And so Department of Environmental Health code inspectors who respond to complaints from tenants about landlords not taking care of bed bugs, mold or other health and safety issues will steer those tenants to Department of Human Services outreach workers should the problem be severe enough to result in a family’s displacement. An outreach team will help them find other shelter, food or a job, if needed. Denver sheriff deputies now are leaving a flier along with the posted notice of eviction that says “EVICTION ASSISTANCE” and gives the phone number of a human service’s outreach worker.
The city is setting aside $1.5 million from its affordable housing fund for financial help to those who qualify for eviction, foreclosure and utility assistance. It is also seeking to making permanent a month-long pilot program in which two Human Services outreach workers set up shop in the court’s Room 164.
The pilot, which ended in early April, came out of a working group made up of councilwoman Kniech, her council colleague, Paul Kashman, the Department of Human Services, the Denver Sheriff’s Department and Denver County Courts.
During that 30 days, 90 people talked to the human services team. About 25 submitted applications for financial assistance. You have to be working. Your rent can’t be more than 60 percent of your income, which is one way the city determines whether the rent you are paying is sustainable. Nine people received financial assistance totaling just under $6,000.
Councilwoman Kniech says that considering it costs the city alone $25,000 to help create one new affordable housing unit – and that’s not counting federal and state investments— that’s money well spent.
I met the tenant being evicted from the house on the cul-de-sac during the pilot program. She came through the door, a short African-American woman with a bashful smile, carrying a yellow folder jammed with receipts and paperwork. She was applying for $1,250, first month’s rent on a new, smaller place she hoped to move into next. Given her earnings of $15 a hour, rent would have been a little more than half her income. She told the outreach workers that the program may keep her from homelessness. When I last talked to her in late April, she told me things fell through and she didn’t get the city’s assistance, after all.
I talked to her a couple times after that and visited her once before she changed her mind about having her story laid out for public consumption. Then she stopped responding. I went by the house on the cul-de-sac just in case she was still there. She wasn’t. The landlord says she left on May 7.
The tenant told me in one of our last conversations that she might leave for another city, in another state, one where more of her family lives, one she could afford and where there is still a place for her.
The three-bedroom house on the cul-de-sac is available again. The landlord says there’ll be an open house this week.
Lead photo courtesy of Denver Sheriff’s Department. Other photos by Tina Griego