Colorado Landlords Are Evicting Tenants Again, And The Oldest Cases Are First In Line
For months, Colorado’s eviction moratorium shielded Trish Quinn and her family from being kicked out on the street. But just a week after it expired, her landlord came knocking.
On Tuesday, he, along with two Adams County sheriff’s deputies, handed her a court order and told her she had five minutes to pack up her personal belongings and leave. Quinn ran to her living room, grabbed an urn containing her mother’s ashes and walked outside.
“We’re hopeless,” Quinn, who lost her job in February and soon after stopped paying rent on her two-story home in Brighton, later said. “Everything’s going to have to go into storage and then we’ll have to stay with family.”
Local sheriff’s departments have started carrying out eviction orders for the first time since March, starting with a backlog of months-old cases—like Quinn’s—filed by landlords in the weeks leading up to widespread coronavirus lockdowns.
From the pandemic’s early days, Gov. Jared Polis asked for patience from landlords and took aggressive action to ensure struggling renters had a place to live even if they couldn’t pay.
Now those protections have expired.
A more recent executive order, passed on Jun. 13, delays new evictions until at least mid-July. But it doesn’t apply to cases originating before COVID-19 hit.
Some cities, like Denver, have enacted indefinite bans on all evictions amid the pandemic. But without statewide legal reigns to stop them, other locales, like Adams County, are essentially picking up where they left off a few months ago.
“The only evictions we are doing are those that were already on the books prior to the COVID-19 shutdown,” the Adams County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement to KUNC. “These are all extensions from landlords whose tenants were going to be evicted and it is not because of hardships from the pandemic.”
Even though they’re legal, the restart of evictions in some communities has alarmed housing advocates and lawyers who warned in April the state could see a potential “eviction crisis” once renter protections went away.
Pre-COVID, Colorado’s monthly eviction rate was roughly on par with the national average, according to data from the national tracking website Eviction Lab . In 2016, the latest year analyzed, the state saw 2.75% of renters - or 18,000 - experience evictions.
Colorado lacks a state-run database that tracks eviction cases. But current estimates from the Colorado Apartment Association, the state’s largest landlord trade group, show that fewer than 50 evictions took place during COVID-19 lockdowns in March, April and May—and only for extreme public safety reasons.
Peter LiFari, executive director with Maiker Housing Partners in Adams County, stressed calculating the actual number of evictions occurring in real-time now is a moving target.
“Folks don’t really have an understanding of the volume that’s happening,” LiFari said. “We’re working in an opaque environment that we’re trying to get past in the middle of this crazy pandemic.”
As more evictions get the green light, LiFari and other housing organizations across the Front Range are also rushing to distribute millions of dollars in federal, state and local government assistance to landlords and needy families. But for some, it’s not moving fast enough.
LiFari says there’s not much Colorado can do to help families caught in “wave one” of evictions happening right now. What he worries about more is “wave two” of post-lockdown eviction filings that could flood courtrooms later this summer.
“Landlords are in the position of a rock and a hard place,” LiFari said. “Willing landlords that want to keep folks may apply for benefits across the state and concurrently file an eviction and whichever comes first, they may grab onto.”
If landlords choose the latter, the results could be devastating, he said.
“It would not be unrealistic to think if the spigot is fully turned on, we could have over 1,000 unique evictions in the 17th Judicial Court next month,” he said. “That would be a conservative estimate.”
In Fort Collins, the local housing nonprofit Neighbor-to-Neighbor has already seen requests for rental assistance soar, particularly from undocumented families living in Weld and Larimer counties.
The organization distributed roughly $140,000 in May—up from its $19,000 average.
“I really think August is gonna be tough,” said Gia Helfin, Neighbor-to-Neighbor’s lead housing counselor. “If they don’t extend the moratorium, if they don’t give any more stimuluses or extend federal unemployment benefits, August is gonna be tough for a lot of people.”
Some landlords and tenants have struck compromises to avoid eviction altogether. The deals include spreading out missed payments over the remainder of a lease, or waiving late fees to help renters catch up on debt as they go back to work.
Debi Stobi, a landlord based in Thornton, said she had around six tenants approach her to ask if they could pay rent late. She said she and her husband, who manage the property, are still playing it by ear.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all policy for this,” Stobi said. “You’re dealing with people who were gainfully employed - responsible people - so you have to be flexible.”
But for Shui Lin, Trish Quinn’s landlord in Brighton, the roughly $10,000 the family owed in missed payments was too much to handle.
“Normally when (tenants) can’t pay the rent, I say ‘that’s okay, let’s work through it,’” Lin said. “But I need respect and these people weren’t respectful.”
According to court documents, Lin filed a complaint in Adams County Court on Feb. 13 after Trish and her husband, Craig, failed to pay rent on time. Later that month, Lin and the Quinns met to try to avoid an eviction.
On a piece of notebook paper, they wrote out a detailed payment proposal that spaced out debt payments over the next several months. Both Lin and Craig Quinn signed the document.
Then, a few weeks later, the pandemic hit full force along the Front Range. In response, courts shut down for several weeks.
In late March, Gov. Polis issued an executive order asking local governments to forgo evictions, and only process essential cases.
Trish and Craig Quinn weren’t able to follow the new repayment plan, because she’d lost her job at a local male fertility clinic and he was furloughed from work as a truck driver. They also had trouble requesting unemployment benefits because the state’s system was overwhelmed, Trish said. Her government stimulus check went toward food and other bills.
In late April, Lin, needing the income to care for his own family, submitted a motion to dismiss the new payment agreement and proceed with an eviction.
“They have not paid money as agreed upon,” Lin wrote. “They have not paid any money.”
On April 28, the court ruled in favor of Lin. A week later, a deputy clerk issued him a writ of restitution, a legal document giving landlords the go-ahead to evict a tenant.
But by then, Gov. Polis had enacted the statewide eviction moratorium. The order barred Lin and the local sheriff’s department from carrying out the writ for more than a month.
After it expired, Lin called the sheriff’s department and scheduled the eviction for June 23. Lin said he then notified the Quinns, an action the family says never happened.
It took only a couple of hours for the movers to put all of the family’s belongings on the front lawn.
Dishes were packed in black garbage bags. A gallon of milk from the fridge sat in the 90-degree heat. Trish’s 17-year-old son, Andrew, discovered the movers had chipped his glossy photo of the Brooklyn Bridge at night.
“They don’t care about us,” he said. “No respect.”
When a rental truck arrived, he helped his dad start to move the family’s belongings in one-by-one. Trish sat on the trunk of her white SUV, with her Great Pyrenees, Brea, panting in the heat while she made calls to potential new rental homes in the Denver area.
"I don't understand," she said, dialing the number of a home she'd looked at online. "This is ridiculous."
After several failed attempts, she got some good news. A new landlord had approved the family to move into a new home in Lakewood on July 1. Until then, they were homeless.
They planned to sleep at Trish’s dad’s home in Denver for the time being.
“It is a business, but compassion and humanity should be prevalent when it is a pandemic and everybody is on lockdown,” Quinn said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people are going through this.”
Her husband Craig just went back to work, which should help cover expenses on the new place. She had a job interview lined up at a new medical clinic. Despite the eviction, she hoped the next few months would be less chaotic.
“Just getting back to normal," she said. "Like everybody else."