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A three-part look at why the pandemic has pushed so many Coloradans to the brink of homelessness, and how communities are responding.

'Just Trying To Survive': Coloradans Struggling In The Pandemic Turn To Emergency Rental Assistance

Leigh Paterson
When Adela’s husband was out of work last spring, she applied for emergency rental assistance in Larimer County with the help of La Familia, a childcare center in Fort Collins.

Thousands of families across Northern Colorado, particularly Black and Latino residents, are struggling to pay rent because of the pandemic. In part one of 'On the Edge,' we look at the economic factors pushing people to ask for help.

Lee en español.

One year into the pandemic, as many Coloradans are starting to envision a return to normal life, requests for emergency rental assistance in the state are surging.

County agencies and local nonprofits are frantically working to disburse millions of dollars in new federal aid to Coloradans struggling to pay rent because of the economic impacts of the virus.

Adela, whose last name KUNC is withholding to protect her immigration status, received a bill in mid-March showing unpaid rent plus water and sewer charges for her mobile home lot in Fort Collins. The balance due for March and April: $1,177.25.

Knowing she lacked enough cash to pay rent, last month Adela applied for emergency rental assistance in Larimer County. But she says her financial problems date back to last May, when her husband, a house painter, was out of work for two months. It was the beginning of the pandemic — work had just ceased, she explained. A cascade of financial troubles followed.

“Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm getting emotional, thinking about it, remembering. But at that moment I was just trying to survive,” Adela said, through a translator, as huge tears rolled silently down her cheeks, soaking into her blue facemask.

Many of her friends and neighbors were out of work. Adela was terrified of contracting the virus. Because her family lives paycheck to paycheck, when her husband stopped working, Adela described immediately having to visit local churches in order to feed her three kids. Soon after, she said she applied for $1700 in emergency rental assistance, which is available to Coloradans who make less than 80% of the median income in their county and who can prove a financial need related to the pandemic. The assistance check was approved and mailed to her landlord. By July, her husband was back at work.

“I did feel more comfortable. However, I was still concerned because we were behind on other payments, like the car, the insurance and other things just kind of piled up,” Adela said.

Since then, she has borrowed money from her brother and a woman she knows who charges interest.

“It’s not like it was before when I was at the food bank every week,” Adela said. “But we’re still having financial difficulties.”

'How many people are living on this knife's edge?'

This far into the pandemic, Adela’s story is an example of how so many Coloradans have come to be unstably housed.

Since last March, over 14,000 tenants have applied for millions of dollars in emergency rental assistance through the state, the majority in the past few months. These numbers do not include applications processed at the county level so far this year.

Neighbor2Neighbor, a Fort Collins-based housing assistance organization, has helped 4,000 households pay rent since the pandemic began; around 20% of applicants reported speaking a language other than English, while around 12% are undocumented.

Statewide, Black and Latino residents have applied for assistance at a disproportionate rate, making up 45% of requests despite representing only 25% of the population collectively.

“We have so many people that are working, working hard... but still kind of on the economic margins, on this fine line between making it and not,” said Martin Shields, a regional economist at Colorado State University. “This crisis — really is a crisis for these families — has kind of laid bare: how many people are living on this knife's edge?”

Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Rove, a Fort Collins restaurant, remains closed in March due to the pandemic. The decrease in business and occasional closure of bars, restaurants and hotels during the pandemic has had a significant impact on employment of low-wage workers.

Years before the pandemic hit, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that over 280,000 Coloradans were putting more than half of their income towards housing costs, well over the commonly recommended threshold of 30%. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, basic housing for a family of four in Larimer County comes to $1,244 per month. The economic impacts of the pandemic have made it even harder to afford rent.

“You think about somebody not able to pay their rent for multiple months, all of a sudden that's $10,000 that for a person that's been living paycheck to paycheck, that’s $10,000 in debt that they don't have,” said Alison George, the director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA)’s Division of Housing.

In a preliminary data analysis of job loss in Larimer County, Shields found that over half of the jobs lost during the pandemic have been in leisure, hospitality and retail — jobs staffed by workers who are predominantly Latinos, women and young people. Employment for low-wage workers in Colorado has, in general, rebounded slower than for middle and higher wage workers, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by CU Leeds School of Business.

Courtesy Brian Lewandowski / Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder

“Economics is called the dismal science. And the reason is because we try to make sense of the economy when bad things happen,” Shields said. “But then when you peel it back and you understand that behind these jobs are individuals and in their families… it's heartbreaking.”

Coloradans needing assistance face significant delays

Throughout the pandemic, rental assistance in Colorado has been available through a combination of grants, plus state and federal dollars. Then, in December, Congress passed a COVID relief bill that included $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, funneling money to communities across the country in an effort to prevent a housing crisis.

The relief seems to be working. In March, the state's largest association of landlords reported that 98% of their tenants made rent.

Lisa Winchester, president of the Northern Colorado Apartment Association, says many of their members have been helping their tenants apply for rental assistance.

“It seems like it is working to a degree,” Winchester said. “I think the problem is that there are so many people seeking assistance right now that all of those agencies are very strained… so it can be weeks or even months before we get the money that is owed us.”

Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Kelly Evans, executive director of Neighbor2Neighbor, prepares to mail a rental assistance check to a landlord. During the pandemic, she says the need for help has been “overwhelming.”

In Larimer County, Neighbor2Neighbor (N2N) is the organization tasked with processing applications and giving out $10 million worth of new federal emergency rental assistance in the county, a process which is just now getting underway.

In Larimer County, the need for rental assistance has increased significantly and steadily since the pandemic. In March, N2N’s average assistance check was just under $5,000. The organization has applications from nearly 800 households waiting in its assistance queue. N2N’s website warns that it will be six or more weeks before tenants are contacted.

“Because as soon as we get people assisted, there's just that many more people who are applying,” Evans said.

Evans has recently hired eight new staff, doubling N2N’s number of housing coordinators, some of whom speak Spanish.

Evans echoes what others in this world have said, that unemployment among low-wage workers coupled with the time it takes to spend down resources are both factors pushing tenants to seek assistance now. She also attributes the recent increase in need, in part, to the word getting out about these programs. N2N is working with La Familia, a Fort Collins daycare center primarily serving Spanish-speaking families, to bring people in. DOLA is now advertising emergency rental assistance in its unemployment email blasts.

“I do believe that with improved marketing and with an intuitive online system, we've been able to really see the demand that has been pent up,” said Alison George, the director of DOLA’s Division of Housing.

Evans points to research showing that housing instability leads to worse educational outcomes for kids.

“When something unforeseen like this happens, it's really important to preserve housing stability because the domino effect that happens if housing stability is lost is very real and very significant,” Evans said. “So I think we're going to need rental assistance for years to come.”

Courtesy Adela
A recent photo of Adela’s husband and their three children at an ice skating rink.

More rental assistance coming to communities

In March, President Biden signed a coronavirus relief package that includes $21 billion in rental assistance, available until 2027.

Still, rental assistance takes time to reach those in need. Last month, because her husband’s house painting work slowed down over the winter and because they are still behind on bills, Adela applied for assistance again with help from her landlord. Four long weeks later, she found out her request was approved, texting that she was “super happy” to finally get the news.

Now that the weather is warming up, her husband is working more. Plus, both Adela and her husband recently received the coronavirus vaccine. Now, she feels more comfortable leaving the house and is planning to take her kids to the local indoor pool, something they haven’t done since last summer.

Struggling to pay rent in Northern Colorado? Here’s a list of resources.

As KUNC's mental health reporter, I seek to create a sense of urgency and understanding around issues related to mental illness, access to care and happiness in Northern Colorado and our mountain communities.
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