Colorado Evictions Could Be Slowed By Friday As CDC Declares Evictions A Public Health Crisis

September 1, 2020
Denver SkylineDenver SkylineHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Denver skyline seen from Mother Cabrini Shrine in the foothills, Aug. 9 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control plans to enact a moratorium that will prevent many evictions across the United States starting this Friday, Sept. 4. The order, which was released today, declares that evictions represent a public health crisis amid the pandemic.

"I was shocked. I’m still shocked," said Zach Neumann, an attorney with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which has organized legal defenses for tenants.

The CDC order states that landlords may not evict any tenant for nonpayment if that person is making $99,000 or less, or $198,000 for a couple. It extends until Dec. 31.

However, landlords may still be allowed to take eviction cases to court in Colorado, according to Jon Sarché, spokesperson for the Colorado Judicial Department. It could be left to individual judges to determine whether tenants qualify for the protections.

The order requires that people are making "best efforts" to pay rent, and they must assert that eviction would leave them homeless or living in crowded conditions. The order does not prevent foreclosures on homeowners.

The document says landlords can't "remove or cause the removal of a covered person from a residential property." It still allows evictions for causes such as property damage -- and it does not erase a tenant's obligation to pay rent. Failure to pay rent could easily result in eviction after the order expires.

The order blindsided everyone from housing advocates to state officials. Courts officials had not seen it until a CPR News reporter emailed the newly published document to the communications office, according to Sarché.

The CDC gave few details about what states should do next. Hundreds of eviction cases are pending in Colorado's court systems, and countless people are behind on rent.

After an initial read, courts officials say they still must accept evictions claims into the courts.

"Our understanding is the CDC order does not prevent the courts from accepting filings. And so, when a filing comes in, it’s going to be up to each judge in each case to take a look at the circumstances and determine whether the conditions in the CDC order are met," Sarché said.

Shutting down the cases altogether could " be an infringement on the rights of the landlord," he added. But the order and its interpretation still could change.

Reenie Terjak, director of advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, worries that allowing eviction cases to continue will cause widespread confusion.

"And that’s on top of the fact that Colorado is already doing, in my opinion, a not-very-uniform process for handling eviction proceedings across the counties around the state," she said. "So, yes, it will be a big mess."

A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis said the administration was looking over the order: "Our administration is currently reviewing this recent federal action to see if it will really help Coloradans or is just empty words."

The statement continued: "The Governor has urged the federal government to take meaningful steps to address the most pervasive housing challenges Coloradans are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic including rent assistance to help keep people in their homes. The Governor continues to call on the U.S. Senate to include a robust emergency rental assistance package in the urgent next round of stimulus relief.”

A spokesman for President Donald Trump said in a statement that Trump is "committed to helping hardworking Americans stay in their homes and combating the spread of the coronavirus" and that the order from his administration meant people "struggling to pay rent due to coronavirus will not have to worry about being evicted."

In Colorado, Polis temporarily banned evictions earlier in the pandemic, but that order expired in June. On Tuesday, housing advocates reacted with surprise and excitement.

"This is not something we were expecting today or any day," Neumann said.

In fact, the order cited research published by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which has strong Colorado ties. Working with the Aspen Institute, the group projected that up to 40 million people were at risk of eviction nationwide.

The Colorado Apartment Association disputed that figure, pointing out that evictions here remained significantly below normal in August, the first month after state and national protections had fully expired.

Still, housing advocates warned that the dropoff in unemployment benefits and the grinding pandemic economy could worsen the threat in coming months.

Now, property owners, tenants and government officials are navigating another surprising change.

Drew Hamrick, general counsel for the apartment association, said that some tenants may stop paying rent because of the order, causing financial difficulties for both landlords and renters. Small landlords might be unable to pay their mortgages, and property owners could react by requiring larger security deposits and tightening their standards.

"They’ve kind of painted themselves into a corner," he said of the CDC. "The only way they can prevent disaster is to come up with some kind of (financial) relief to replace the income stream. Renters and property owners need greater relief."

The order also could face legal challenges as it tries to apply the CDC's public health powers to the property market.

Neumann, the attorney, said that a moratorium would "buy tenants the time they need" to get their finances in order. But he also said that tenants and property owners alike need financial assistance.

"I think we’ve effectively solved the time issue," he said. "We have not solved the money issue.