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Amid Language Gap, Fort Morgan Is Finding Ways To Ease Tenant-Landlord Relations

Poncie Rutsch
A group facilitator asks east African renters to identify their landlord's responsibilities.

Leasing an apartment or home has never been an easy process, but imagine navigating a househunt with limited English skills. Every showing requires a translator, or really, anytime you have to communicate with a landlord; for example, when something breaks.

Miscommunications are easy, which is one reason why One Morgan County, a nonprofit in Fort Morgan, Colorado, hosted a meeting to help untangle the rights and responsibilities of tenants.

“There’s issues on both sides of this,” says executive director Michaela Holdridge. “And we really figured this would be a good time to discuss this, and say ‘OK, what is your understanding of your rights as a tenant?’”

Fort Morgan, a small town of about 11,000 people in the midst of northeastern Colorado farmland, has hosted a sizeable Latino population for decades. Starting in 2006 though, many east African refugees migrated to town, in part because Cargill’s meatpacking plant offered above minimum wage jobs that people without English skills could qualify for.

Because of the town’s small size, everyone navigates cultural and language barriers on a daily basis. Yet this also means that they can gather as a community and discuss how to improve communications -- something that might not be as effective in a larger town.

“We’re here today to talk about tenant rights and management responsibilities,” Holdridge says to the room of about 40 renters. Then she pauses while her words get translated into Spanish, then Somali, and then French. She breaks the gathering into smaller groups, each with a translator and a facilitator.

“Do you feel like the managers are doing whatever it is they need to do to maintain a good living situation?” asks one facilitator, Krista Martinez with the Colorado Trust. “Any issues you want to bring up?”

Her group starts listing the landlord’s responsibilities: taking care of pests and fixing things that break. Another group discusses the way a local trailer park is run. A middle-aged man worries in Spanish about how frequently people speed down a pothole-covered road in the park. He also worries about the consequences of sharing his name -- he doesn’t want to upset the property manager because he took his complaints elsewhere.

“The potholes are so bad that the whole car shakes. So they have to drive really slow,” translates Lilia Vieyra, a local student who has volunteered her bilingual skills for the meeting. She listens as the man describes his interaction with the people who manage the trailer park. “He had to go over to them to get them to do something about it even though it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t in good condition.”

Holdridge also invited a lawyer to listen carefully and offer advice for how to move forward. Karin Troendle works for Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit dedicated to offering legal assistance to those who might not be able to afford it.

“There is a Colorado Mobile [Home] Park Act [.pdf] that says management is responsible for the major issues,” she explains.

That means road maintenance, since roads are part of the land that people in a trailer park are renting.

Still, there’s a longer tradition here, stretching back before communication barriers. The housing system in Colorado is not set up to benefit renters, even if they do speak perfect English.

“It’s not a tenant friendly state,” says Troendle. “Prior to 2009 there was no requirement that there be a roof, that there be electricity, that there be plumbing. It’s only been since 2009 that it’s even been required under Colorado law the place be habitable.”

Since they know their renters are new to Colorado housing, many Fort Morgan landlords have been trying to meet tenants halfway by trying to find interpreters and translators to understand lease agreements. Many offer more comprehensive walk-through tours when they show their apartments, and make sure to explain how appliances work. Little things -- like running the water when you use the disposal in the sink -- might be something that gets overlooked if you’ve never lived in a home with a disposal.

“We don’t have to come back in and make these repairs when you, you know, use the stove correctly or don’t let things boil over,” says Jared Cruson, the community manager at Gateway Apartments. “A lot of it is just dialogue and trying to explain it.”

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