Polis places moratorium on evictions through May

Housing advocates say the order brings needed clarity to renters’ rights during the pandemic as Polis’s previous order largely punted to local law enforcement agencies

A person sleeping under a bridge in Boulder on March 19, 2020 before there was a stay-at-home order to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Polis issued a moratorium on evictions on April 30, but a study shows 450,000 people could be evicted in coming months due to the inability to pay rent. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order suspending evictions late Thursday night, joining most states in the U.S. to temporarily outlaw removing renters from their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Housing advocates say the order brings needed clarity to renters’ rights during the pandemic as Polis’s previous order largely left the decision whether to carry out evictions up to local law enforcement agencies. 

Landlords are also prohibited from charging late fees or penalties for any breach of the terms of a lease or rental agreement due to nonpayment, the order states. 

The executive order came as part of a series announced at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday in which Polis slashed state spending for the remainder of the fiscal year, including a $183 million cut to state Medicaid services. He also directed the Health Care Policy and Financing Department to increase payments to nursing facilities and other provider-owned residential settings, the locations that make up the majority of COVID-19-related deaths in Colorado. 

The order comes as unemployment claims in Colorado continue to rise. Over the past five weeks, more than 358,489 Coloradans — more than 10% of the state’s labor force — have filed for unemployment, according to the Department of Labor and Employment. During the Great Recession from 2009 and 2010, a little over a half a million Coloradans filed for unemployment. 

“To be Safer at Home, Coloradans must continue to have a home,” Polis wrote in his April 30 order on evictions. The “safer at home” phase of the pandemic response encourages people to stay home while the state begins to slowly reopen businesses and allow social activities. “As we prepare to reopen the economy it is important that we continue to acknowledge that the economic impacts of COVID-19 are significant, and threaten to undermine the economic stability of many Coloradans and local businesses.” 

Colorado now joins more than two dozen other states that have suspended evictions during the pandemic, according to researchers at Columbia Law. Prior to the April 30 order, Colorado had almost no protections for renters from evictions. The state scored a 0.5 out of 5, ranking in the bottom 10 among U.S. states for its policies protecting renters, according to the Eviction Lab, a project created by Princeton University. 

Even during the governor’s previous order calling on law enforcement to halt evictions, sheriffs in Weld and Jefferson counties defied that guidance, together serving more than two-dozen evictions in the month of April. “It’s not a sheriff’s issue to decide. It’s the court’s issue to decide,” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader told The Colorado Independent on April 17. “Absent getting a stay of execution from the court or the landlord pulling the notice, I don’t think we have a choice” but to serve evictions. 

Shrader said he spoke with landlords in an effort to resolve the issue before serving the eviction paperwork. And, he said, about half the time his office served an eviction the tenant had already left.

Other sheriffs, however, declined to serve court-ordered evictions. “Unprecedented times require different reactions,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown. “We take this very seriously. We are looking out for the overall health of the community. At this point, pushing people out of there residents doesn’t add for the safety of our residents.” 

There are hundreds of eviction notices waiting to be served in counties across the Front Range. The governor’s April 30 eviction order, which expires in 30 days, says no person “shall remove or exclude a tenant from a premises or enter a premises to remove or exclude personal property of a tenant from the premises” or “execute or enforce a writ of restitution, possession judgment, or order.” This means sheriffs will not be allowed to serve a court-ordered eviction. 

“We were surprised by his order as the Governor has repeatedly said that he does not have the authority to interfere with contracts between two private parties, a position with which we continue to agree,” said Mark Williams, executive vice president of the Colorado Apartment Association, which has posted a list of financial resources on its website.

He added, “We also have concerns that the Governor is tying his authority to enact an eviction moratorium to an amorphous concept of economic stability, which has no statutory definition and is a largely subjective measure. Declaring that the courts are open but that Colorado property owners can’t use them is not the right approach. We need to focus on making it legal for Coloradoans to go back to work.”

Zach Neumann, the head of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which is providing free legal help renters facing eviction, said “The new executive order is a great move by Governor Polis to protect tenants and inject clarity into an otherwise confusing situation. It is meaningful and it will help to protect families. The next step is figuring out what to do when this and other moratoria are lifted.” 

The executive order does not cancel rent, which could leave renters with a pile of debt to their landlords at the start of June. A coalition of workers and organizers for communities of color are calling on Polis to cancel rent altogether, which Polis has said he cannot legally do. 

“No governor, no president has the legal ability to suspend the sanctity of contract law,” Polis said during a press conference April 13. “No state has done that.”

There is some monetary relief for renters. On April 27, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Housing received $3 million from the state’s disaster emergency fund to help people facing evictions or foreclosures. The money can be used for short-term rental and mortgage assistance for low-income people who are economically impacted by COVID-19, according to DOLA. For more on eligibility and how to apply, visit this site. The city of Denver is also providing some rent assistance through its Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance (TRUA) Program. City officials say the assistance can cover up to 80% rent. 

Housing advocates say this money is drying up and that it’s not enough to support current demand. An April 13 study by defense attorneys found about 450,000 Colorado renters are at risk of being evicted in the coming months. It’s unclear if lawmakers will be able to provide rent relief given that they are facing a multi-billion budget shortfall, forcing them to cut existing programs and abandon legislative priorities for the remainder of the 2020 legislations session

Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Democrat from Lakewood who works as a private attorney helping renters facing eviction, said, “The great irony of course, is that if there is an economic downturn … when all our revenues are shrinking and the state government is shrinking, that is when people need government intervention the most.”