Colorado Renters Could See Serious New Rights And Housing Reform This Year. Here’s What On The Table

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana retrieves mail from her aunt’s house in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, June 25, 2020. She was recently evicted and has been sleeping in a truck in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

Renters could gain permanent new rights and protections as Democrats try to pass the most potent set of housing reforms in Colorado's recent history. 

Bills now pending at the state Capitol would give people more time to avoid an eviction, more leverage against their landlords, and more protection from late fees. A related proposal also could allow cities to set much more powerful affordable housing laws.

“I think we all agree that housing is a human right, and that it is a public health issue. And that through the pandemic, we have seen far too many families lose their homes, and that is especially true in communities of color,” said state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a sponsor of two of the measures. “Everything starts in the home.”

But some elements already face opposition, including from within the party, as landlords warn that changing the balance of power could leave some property owners unable to pay their own bills.

Limits on late fees

The most ambitious of the Democrats’ housing bills, SB21-173, would give renters more rights throughout the eviction process, starting the moment they fall behind in rent.

“We know that too many families are evicted for small things,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. 

The bill would place new restrictions on the late fees landlords can charge. It would:

  • Cap late fees at no more than 2.5 percent of the sum that is owed
  • Create a “grace period” so that late fees could not be charged until 14 days after the rent is due
  • Ensure renters could not be evicted just for failing to pay a late fee

The Colorado Apartment Association isn’t objecting to the overall idea. The current law says that late fees must be “reasonable,” and setting a standard definition could help, said Drew Hamrick, general counsel for the group.

But the Association argues the bill’s provisions — as introduced — go too far.

“But we’ve seen no agreement on what those late fees should be,” Hamrick said, saying a long grace period combined with lower penalties would hurt smaller property owners.  “It totally blows up their ability to fund their monthly mortgage with that month’s rent payment.”

CAA is asking for a 3-day grace period instead of two weeks, and a higher cap on late fees.

A slower eviction process, with more offramps

Senate Bill 173 also would grant a significant new right for people fighting against evictions in court.

Currently, renters have only a limited time to “cure” an eviction. State law says they have 10 days to repay their back rent after they get an eviction notice. After that, the landlord is not required to accept payment and can proceed with the court case.

The new bill would extend that cure period, allowing people to stay in their home if they can catch up on rent at any time during the court process. In fact, they would even be allowed to repay the rent for two days after a judge orders an eviction.

“We believe that renters should be able to stop the eviction process by just paying the landlord what they owe,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales. “This provision would buy renters the critical time without placing a new burden on the landlord.”

Among other changes, the bill would also:

  • Forbid landlords from forcing tenants to pick up the full legal fees for a case
  • Makes it easier for renters to legally withhold rent when a home is in poor condition
  • Give renters more legal power to collect damages when a landlord breaks the rules

A second bill, HB21-1121, would significantly extend the timeline for an eviction. 

Currently, it takes at least 19 days to evict someone. The bill as written would extend that to 42 days in total, including a longer window in which the renter can repay the landlord. 

But the bill is likely to be weakened in response to opposition, said Rep. Dominique Jackson, a Democratic sponsor. She didn’t have the voters within her party to pass the bill as it was introduced, she said.

“Democrats do believe that housing is a priority. But you know what I’m fighting here? What I’m fighting is a system that has existed forever, that is based in racism and power and money,” Jackson said “And so I can only do it in incremental pieces.”

Instead of adding extra days throughout the process, including when a tenant might be able to stop their eviction, the revised version will only give them more time to prepare to move out after they lose the case. That period would go from two days to 10.

That extra time will allow people to figure out “what they’re going to do, where you’re going to store your stuff, where your kids are going to school — where you’re going to go,” said Jackson.

The bill also would require that tenants receive eviction papers in person, a change that would ensure they are not surprised by an eviction order. But the Colorado Apartment Association said the practical impact would be to allow tenants to live rent-free for as long as they can avoid being served. The bill “creates a strategy of actively ghosting your housing provider,” according to Hamrick.

Evictions overall have remained at lower levels than before the pandemic, thanks in part to state and federal restrictions.

Cesiah Guadarrama, an organizer for the working women’s advocacy group 9to5, said the bills could provide needed protections when those limits and other support programs eventually expire. She’s frequently received calls after 9 p.m. from people who fear they’ll lose their homes.

“The CDC moratorium provided relief to some extent,” she said. “However, it did not take away the burden that they were feeling. The fear, the constant worry, ‘I’m still going to be evicted.’”

She noted that though the state has a program in place to help struggling tenants pay the rent, “the eviction timeline is shorter than the one to receive rental assistance.”

Hamrick challenged the idea that evictions happen too swiftly for renters to get help. It often can take two or three months before sheriff’s deputies carry out an eviction, he said, even outside the pandemic.

Rent control on new development

Currently, local governments in Colorado have little control over what landlords charge for rent. A new proposal, HB21-1117, would allow local governments to require lower rents in new housing units.

Under the bill, cities could declare that newly built or redeveloped communities must include a certain portion of housing units at a lower rent price. Cities that institute such policies would also have to offer alternative options to developers — such as building affordable housing units elsewhere in the city or paying a fee to be used for other affordable housing efforts. But the bill does not detail what those options should be.

This would reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling in 2000, which said that municipalities can’t force developers to include lower-cost housing units in developments. Democrats have tried several times to give cities this power, including a failed proposal last year.

“It’s essentially giving them the tools that they need in order to create more affordable housing as suited for the community they represent,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said.

The Colorado Apartment Association is pushing for some limits on the proposal. It has proposed that cities should only be allowed to control the rent on 10 percent of the units in a project, and that they couldn’t require it to be lower than 80 percent of the average rent for an area. Opponents of rent control argue that developers will simply charge higher rents elsewhere in the building.

“What's so fundamentally unfair about that is it puts the entire burden of affordable housing not on society as a whole, but only on the other residents of the community,” Hamrick said.

Other changes

Lawmakers also have proposed a spread of smaller housing policy changes. One proposal, HB21-1054, would ensure that undocumented people can get housing benefits.

Another bill, HB21-1134, sponsored by Rep. Naquetta Ricks and Sen. Jeff Bridges, would explore a new idea to help tenants build their credit ratings. The state would create a test program that would make it easier for landlords to transmit information about rent payments to the credit bureaus. Tenants could choose whether or not to participate.

Other bills would try to improve the state’s housing efforts by requiring a new annual report on affordable housing and expanding the focus of the housing division to include energy efficiency and transit-oriented development.