No money, but rent is due: In Colorado, few eviction protections as coronavirus spreads

"We’re having to choose between whether we can eat or pay rent," one tenant said.

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By Anita Hassan

In a span of 10 days in March, all three people in Kendra Tallant’s household lost their jobs.

As the COVID-19 outbreak shut down businesses across Colorado, Tallant, 41, was furloughed from her job at a resort where she took reservations. Her fiancé, who detailed cars, lost his job, and her 23-year-old son, who worked at a nearby seafood restaurant, was also laid off.

Without any income, she knew they would not be able to pay the $1,761.62 rent for their three-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs on April 3 and still have enough money left over for groceries and other expenses. She tried to negotiate with her landlord, but the company hit her with nearly $300 in late fees and began taking steps toward eviction.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Tallant said. “We were forced to not work by no fault of our own. These places are just not working with us, and we’re having to choose between whether we can eat or pay rent.”

Kendra Tallant; her fiancé, BJ Shepherd, left; and her son, Jonathyn Murray outside of their apartment complex in Colorado Springs.Benjamin Rasmussen / for NBC News

Unlike more than 30 other states, Colorado does not have a statewide moratorium on evictions during the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has issued guidance to limit evictions, requesting that landlords work with tenants on payment plans and waive late fees — but he has not required them to do so.

Decisions on evictions have been left to courts and local governments, creating a patchwork of policies throughout the state, legal experts say. While law enforcement is not delivering eviction notices during Colorado’s state of emergency, and many district judges and cities have suspended eviction proceedings, others are still allowing cases to be filed, but delaying hearings. Attorneys say at least one jurisdiction, Montrose County, has held teleconference eviction hearings.

The uncertainty has left thousands of Colorado renters confused and fearing they’ll be evicted when courts resume operations and law enforcement agencies begin delivering notices, legal and housing policy advocates say.

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Colorado earned a spot fourth from the bottom on a scorecard released Monday that evaluated the eviction policies of each state amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The scorecard, developed by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab and Columbia Law School, gave Colorado zero out of five stars.

“Without statewide action and supportive measures to address rental debt, Colorado could see a surge of evictions during and immediately following the pandemic,” the report stated.

In apartment complexes across the state, tenants have begun organizing to push their landlords to offer payment plans or waive late fees. Tenants are also mobilizing online: The Colorado Rent Strike and Eviction Defense Facebook group, which has more than 4,000 members, is planning a rent strike April 30 and is encouraging participants to post signs on their doors and windows.

“I think a statewide moratorium on evictions would go a really long way in relieving anxiety for many Coloradan families,” said Zach Neumann, a Colorado attorney who started the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a group of about 50 volunteer attorneys. A halt on evictions would give renters time to negotiate agreements with their landlords while they are waiting to receive unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks, he said.

Within days of posting a Facebook message offering legal advice last month, Neumann said, he received more than 500 messages. “It is deeply inconsistent to tell people they are not allowed to work, but then rental payments are still expected to be paid on time,” he said.

Polis has allocated $3 million toward emergency rental assistance, but lawyers and advocates say it won’t be enough to meet the need. An analysis by Neumann’s group, based on eviction filings and unemployment data, found that without more interventions, almost 500,000 Coloradans could face eviction in the coming months.

Polis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to a Denver City Council proclamation last week calling on the governor to cancel rent and mortgage payments for struggling residents, a spokesperson for Polis said that he does “not have legal ability to suspend rent or evictions outright, as these are private contracts between individuals and institutions and suspending the sanctity of contract is not within the emergency powers of any governor or president."

‘The state still needs to step in’

When Tallant realized that she wouldn’t be able to pay her rent for April, she wrote to the managers at the Residences at Falcon North, explaining her family’s job losses and asking if they could work out a partial payment plan and waive late fees.

But after more than a dozen emails and several phone calls, the management had only agreed to waive the late fees if she paid her April rent in full. On April 6, Tallant received a 10-day demand letter — notices landlords must issue before they can legally begin an eviction — posted to her door, saying that she needed to pay her rent or leave the apartment.

A 10-day demand letter that was posted on the door of Kendra Tallant's Colorado Springs apartment on April 6, three days after rent was due. Benjamin Rasmussen / for NBC News

“Even if we find a way to pay for April, I have no idea what we’ll do for May,” Tallant said last Wednesday. By that point, including late fees, her April rent had risen to $2,047.

Even though the Fourth Judicial District court, which includes Colorado Springs, is not accepting any new eviction filings until May 18, Tallant worried that when court proceedings resume, she and her family could be forced out of their apartment.

Then, on Monday night, she received a message that brought her some relief: She had previously reached out to Neumann, the attorney, for help, and he had discovered in a database compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition that her apartment complex’s mortgage was backed by the federal government.

Under a federal relief law, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, that meant that not only was she protected from eviction until July 25, but also that her apartment management could not charge her late fees.

The management from Residences at Falcon North and JRK Property Holdings, the Los Angeles-based company that owns the complex, did not return requests for comment. The company owns 32,000 multifamily units and luxury hotels across 20 states, according to its website.

“I’m still angry, because how would I ever have known that as just a regular person, and I’ve been sitting here worried for weeks,” Tallant said. “The state still needs to step in and do more, too, because not everyone is going to fall under those circumstances.”

Even before the pandemic, Colorado renters — 35 percent of the state’s population — had already faced challenges including rapidly rising rents and stringent eviction policies, attorneys and researchers said.

Median rent for one-bedrooms apartments in the state has risen 26.1 percent since the beginning of 2014, compared to a national increase of 15.5 percent, as the state’s population grew, according to data from the real estate site Apartmentlist.com. Five Colorado cities — Aurora, Thornton, Colorado Springs, Westminster and Lakewood — were among the top 100 large cities with the highest eviction rates in 2016, according to Princeton’s Eviction Lab.

Unlike other states, renters in Colorado have almost no “cure period,” or time to pay back debt and prevent eviction, said Jack Regenbogen, a senior attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a legal aid organization. In Colorado, the period ends the moment that the eviction is filed.

Regenbogen is concerned for the many Coloradans who have lost their jobs; the state has seen more than 231,610 initial unemployment claims filed since mid-March.

“This crisis serves to compound and illustrate those inequities in the worst possible manifestations,” he said.

Tenants mobilize

Before the coronavirus outbreak, there was no tenant’s union at The Acacia Apartments, a 55-unit building in downtown Denver. Ryan Leach, 37, a renter in the building, said he decided to help start a union after noticing that many of his neighbors were struggling. Some had received letters from the management demanding that they pay their rent in 10 days or leave.

“Ultimately, what we want is for them to have open and good faith communication with all residents, and willingness for negotiations,” said Leach, who teaches computer science skills to Palestinian refugees abroad and is not working now because he can’t travel overseas.

Ryan Leach started a tenant's union at The Acacia Apartments in downtown Denver to help negotiate rent payment options with the building's landlords. Ryan Leach

The group of about 25 residents is communicating on Slack and has placed flyers offering support in the building’s common area. The group also sent letters to management asking for rental assistance.

Vicky Pelton, operations director for Olive Bark LLC, which owns Acacia and 12 other apartment properties in Colorado, said that all late fees are waived, and tenants who have asked for a payment plan have been allowed to postpone paying half their rent.

Leach said these concessions came after the union’s emails to management.

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Demand notices are only sent to tenants who haven’t asked for a payment plan, Pelton said, and no one is being evicted.

“It’s important for all residents to know that we care about them,” she said. “It’s not in anyone’s best interest for us to put someone out on the street.”

But many Colorado tenants do not have flexibility in making their rent — including those who are renting from private individuals.

Alexander Stockton, 26, rents a five-bedroom home with his wife, Nicole, in Arvada, just outside Denver. The couple was already struggling financially at the beginning of the year when Stockton closed his small furniture delivery company. By February, he’d found work doing contract remodeling. But in March, after business closures began, Stockton and Nicole, an assistant manager at a bridal boutique, both lost their jobs.

Alexander Stockton and his wife, Nicole, both lost their jobs amid the COVID-19 outbreak.Alex Stockton

Stockton said his landlord is an elderly man who relies on the rent to make ends meet. When Stockton asked about a payment plan, he was told it wasn’t possible. (A relative of the landlord, who collects the rent, did not respond to a request for comment.)

So Stockton said he scrounged up what he could from the couple’s savings, and with the help of family, they made the $2,000 rent for April. Last week, Nicole began receiving unemployment insurance, which will come to about $2,030 a month.

“So we’ll still be able to make full rent next month, but it’s going to be tight with food,” Stockton said.

Stockton said he understands that his landlord is also struggling and doesn’t begrudge him for requiring rent.

“He needs a place to live the same way we need it,” Stockton said. “We’re in the same boat.”