Renters struggling as COVID-19 pandemic drags on

Despite temporary halt on evictions, tenants face hardship, uncertainty

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Anna Alling-Rafferty spent her pregnancy in a homeless shelter.

With the help of a housing assistance group, she, her husband David and their daughter Remi, now six months old, landed a two-bedroom apartment in Aurora. They moved in on March 17, as efforts to contain COVID-19 reached a fever pitch.

Alling-Rafferty, 25, found herself stuck: Her new full-time job at a pawn shop meant she no longer qualified for government assistance, but her hours were cut amid the pandemic, and stockpiling food to endure cascading shutdowns left her broke.

Short on rent and baby formula, she turned to the internet for help. She appealed to the Facebook group “Help Needed in Denver Metro COVID-19,” and the floodgates opened.

“We got food, cans of formula, even furniture,” Alling-Rafferty said. “Someone left a box of diapers outside our door. Most importantly, someone donated enough money to cover rent. I spent so long being looked down on when I was homeless, and here I got nothing but kindness and support.”

Now, with another month of rent looming, she's caught again: Waiting on a stimulus check that hasn't arrived, and trying to hash out a possible rent deferment with her property management agency, but worried that deferring rent will only increase her burden in coming months. If all else fails, she may turn back to the kindness of strangers.

“It's nerve-racking,” she said. “I have a baby now. I never want to be homeless again, but I know it can happen. I hope we figure this out.”

'I've never seen a moment like this'

As unemployment spikes to levels not seen in decades, Alling-Rafferty is one of perhaps thousands of people statewide who will face hardships paying rent in coming months, housing advocates say.

“It's pretty dire,” said Zach Neumann, a Denver-based tenants' rights attorney who founded the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a network to help tenants navigate the pandemic. “I've never seen a moment like this.”

Officials in many cities and counties have declared short-term moratoria on eviction proceedings, and the federal government has temporarily halted eviction proceedings on tenants in homes with federally-backed mortgages, but Neumann said many landlords are still placing demands for payment on tenants' doors.

“We're anticipating a massive wave of eviction proceedings entering the court process once the moratoria are lifted,” Neumann said. A study Neumann conducted with university researchers suggests nearly half a million Coloradans could face eviction in coming months. About a third of Colorado residents are renters, according to state data.

Federal stimulus checks and unemployment insurance will likely ease the burden, Neumann said, but many tenants still haven't received that money with the May rent date fast approaching. Rent deferments and late fees mean many tenants will see their payments spike.

The pain stretches across the system, Neumann said. With many tenants unable to pay, many landlords are in danger of being unable to pay their mortgages. Though landlords with federally-backed mortgages can defer their payments, that only applies to about a third of mortgages.

Though many activists are calling for a widespread rent and mortgage freeze -- Denver City Council unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution in support of the idea in mid-April -- Neumann said he's not sure that's legally feasible, a position shared by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who said he doesn't have the authority to effectively suspend private contracts.

A longer-term statewide or national eviction moratorium to supersede the current patchwork would go a long way, Neumann said.

“It would buy tenants and landlords time, and alleviate the anxiety tenants are feeling,” he said.

'Everyone wins when people stay in their homes'

It's in the best interest of landlords and tenants for people to stay in their homes, said Michelle Lyng, spokesperson for the Colorado Apartment Association, a trade association representing 75% of the state's rental housing owners.

The association has been lobbying at the federal level for mortgage deferment programs, Lyng said, but said that's not a panacea. For many landlords, the mortgage covers less than half their costs, with the rest going toward maintenance, payroll and utilities. Landlords make a 9% profit margin on average, she said.

A COVID-19 task force convened by the association issued recommendations to property owners, including forgoing late fees. The task force is also recommending tenants in dire straits reach out to charitable organizations for rent assistance.

“The first step for tenants is to have a frank conversation with your housing provider,” Lyng said. “It's an awkward conversation, but you're not alone. Nobody wants empty units, and everyone wins when people stay in their homes.”

Knowing what to ask for

Meanwhile, charitable organizations, especially those offering rent assistance, are seeing demand on limited resources explode.

Daily call volume has more than tripled at Mile High United Way's 211 call center, a clearinghouse that connects people in need to aid agencies.

“In normal circumstances, rent resources are available at the beginning of the month and run out pretty quickly,” said Fermin Avila, who runs the 211 call center. “That was pre-COVID. Are we on stable footing? Not really. Things are shifting frequently. As resources are exhausted, we keep searching for what else is out there.”

With rental assistance funds a finite resource, Avila said the call center's “resource navigators” help callers find what he calls the “silent need” -- other ways to help the caller hadn't thought of.

“How about utility assistance? Food assistance? Help looking for a job?” Avila said. “If we can ease the burden in other parts of their lives, they can free up money toward rent. Everyone needs help sometimes, but they might now know what to ask for.”

'The solutions aren't working'

For some tenants, relying on charitable organizations and government assistance doesn't cut it.

“Putting the onus on aid groups is saying it's up to poor people to help poor people,” said Desiree Kane, one of the founders of “Colorado Rent Strike and Eviction Defense,” a Facebook group focused on mutual aid for tenants during the pandemic, now topping 4,000 members. “The state's unemployment system is terribly backed up. These solutions aren't working the way they're supposed to.”

Kane said some apartment complexes are forming tenants' unions, with one Denver complex getting 40% of tenants on board for a rent strike.

To be sure, Kane said she's seen success stories: landlords who have deferred their own mortgage payments and passed on the savings to tenants as rent freezes.

But Kane said despite eviction moratoria, the group is filling with people sharing angry letters from landlords, many threatening to throw tenants out for nonpayment.

The housing crisis is also exposing racial inequity, Kane said -- much like people of color are disproportionately the victims of COVID-19, Black, Latino and indigenous people are an outsize number of people facing housing insecurity.

“We're trying to get people to come together over this,” Kane said. “Ultimately, small-time landlords aren't our enemies -- it's the banks we bailed out in 2008. That's why it's important that we're calling for a full-scale rent and mortgage freeze.”

Kane doesn't buy Polis' argument that he lacks the power to freeze rents.

“It's the only equitable answer,” Kane said. “This is only going to get worse. The economy isn't going to magically get back on track in May.”

The group published a wide-ranging list of demands around housing and equity during the crisis and beyond. 

In the meantime, back in Anna Alling-Rafferty's Aurora apartment, the young mom is doing what she can to stay in her home.

“I hope this entire situation makes people realize our economic situation wasn't as stable as we said, even before the virus,” Alling-Rafferty said. “Let's stay focused on helping each other, and keep building the connections we're making now. Let's focus less on ourselves, and ask each other, 'Are you OK?' ”

Need help? Call 211 or visit 211colorado.org

COVID-19, Colorado

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