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Millions in Aid Available as Denver Eviction Rates Rise

Landlords filed 771 eviction cases in Denver County in March, the largest single-month total since the pandemic began. City officials report allotting a bit more than $49 million for emergency rental assistance.

(TNS) — The city of Denver has tens of millions of dollars at its disposal to prop up people who are behind on their rent and at risk of losing their homes. That heap of COVID-19 relief money didn’t stop new eviction filings from hitting a level last month not seen since before the pandemic began.

The federal government has devoted a little more than $49 million to emergency rental assistance in Denver, city officials say. Of that, some $14 million has already been put to work stabilizing renters facing eviction and displacement.

Still, landlords filed 771 eviction cases in Denver County Court in March, according to data from court officials.

That’s a 47 percent increase from the 524 filings the county court saw in February. It’s the highest single-month total since the pandemic began. There were 819 evictions filed in Denver in February 2020, court data shows. With a hodgepodge of state and federal protections and aid programs including rental assistance and boosted unemployment benefits supporting renters over the next two years, Denver eviction filing didn’t exceed 700 again until last month.

How these two facts exist side by side is a matter for debate for city officials, service providers and apartment industry analysts.

For housing advocates, it speaks to a core problem underpinning the city and state’s ongoing housing crisis.

“Wages in Denver have not kept up with renting an apartment in the city,” said Zach Neumann, a local eviction defense attorney.

Rents in Denver are up 9.9 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to Apartment List. Average rents in the city were up 14.7 percent year over year as of the end of March, according to Apartment List’s tracking. That’s actually lower than the national year-over-year increase in average rents, 17.1 percent.

Denver officials also worry that renters aren’t aware of the rights and resources afforded them in the eviction process. Officials have been focusing on reaching people in parts of the city where they know rates of eviction are at their highest, said Melissa Thate, the city’s housing stability director. Those areas include the 80204 and 80219 ZIP codes in the southwestern portion of the city and the 80239 ZIP code that encompasses the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood.

“Obviously, assistance is still available so we have an opportunity there to make sure we are doing more outreach,” Thate said.

While it may be a bigger number than has been seen in the two-plus years since COVID-19 came crashing down on the economy, 771 filings in a month is not an unheard of number in Denver. Between April 2019 and February 2020, an average of 764 eviction cases were filed in Denver per month, data shows.

Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, said that eviction filings have remained largely stable in Colorado for the better part of two decades, never rising above 50,000 in a year and never falling below 36,500. The apartment association only tracks eviction filings statewide and did not have data at the city level. Hamrick said trend lines are generally the same in the city and state.

COVID-19 and associated government efforts to stem the tide of economic damage it caused upended that. But after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden Administration federal eviction moratorium in August, filings in the state have been creeping back to what Hamrick described as a level of normalcy.

In the rental housing industry, evictions are an ugly but necessary part of doing business, Hamrick said.

“Evictions seem like just a loose, loose proposition and in a lot of ways they are. They are extremely expensive for a housing provider and extremely disruptive to residents,” he said. “But’s it’s what keeps the market liquid. No one who owns a piece of property would loan it to someone if there was no legal mechanism to get it back.”

The millions in federal rental assistance handed out in Denver dating back to last summer wasn’t available to everyone. The Department of the Treasury attached one exclusionary string to that funding. In order to qualify, renters had to demonstrate a financial hardship directly due to the pandemic, Thate explained. Qualified renters can have up 15 months of rent covered through the program.

That’s part of the reason why Denver maintained its own, smaller rental and utility assistance effort during the pandemic, to reach people who might not be eligible to tap into federal dollars. The city’s program has about $3 millionc allocated to it this year, Thate said.

The Biden Administration has eased the restrictions on qualifying for the emergency rental assistance program. Denver is preparing to dip into its second tranche of funding next month — about $11 million — and applicants will only have to show that they have a need that came about during the pandemic not directly because of it, Thate said. The city housing department is also making direct payments to renters, circumventing disruption that could occur if a landlord refused to do the necessary paperwork to receive the federal funds themselves.

“As expected, economic impacts from COVID can be long lasting,” Thate said. “I think (the treasury department) acknowledged that things continue to happen following this kind of economic impact.”

Neumann and his colleagues at the nonprofit COVD-19 Eviction Defense Project have been working with renters at risk of displacement since the early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. When eviction protections in Colorado appeared poised to lapse in June 2020, Neumann was sounding the alarm that between 300,000 and 400,000 Coloradans were at risk of losing their housing if more was not done.

The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project is one of five nonprofit organizations the city contracts to hand out federal rental relief dollars to needy households, working with roughly 1,000 households each month, Neumann said. The organization is focused on providing a continuum of care model. The first point of contact is the Colorado Stability Fund, the wing that disperses rental assistance. If emergency funding can’t solve a client’s problems, the organization pivots to referrals to other resources and connecting clients with people that can help them navigate and confusing landscape. If that also comes up short, clients are then connected with free legal help.

Neumann is troubled not just by the amount of rental assistance available but by the fact that evictions are spiking again despite the Denver City Council last year passing an ordinance last year that guaranteed qualified rents access to free legal services in the event of an eviction.

Eviction filings in court don’t tell the full story of displacement, said Sam Gilman, who co-founded the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and runs the Colorado Stability Fund. Research, including data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, indicates that “informal evictions” where tenants are pressured to leave but never taken to court are far more common than legal formal evictions. The 2017 American Housing Survey found that informal evictions made up 72.3 percent of all forces moved in the country over the prior two years. That was 5.5 times greater than the rate of formal evictions captures by the survey.

In early April, eviction filings in Denver fell off the pace set in March. Only 268 cases were filed as of April 15, district court data shows.

Gilman said forecasting trends in evictions is difficult. But life is not getting easier for Denverites making well below the area median income, as is the case for most of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project’s clients

“We have a low-income and extremely low-income economy that hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic, or, if it did, it bounced from the pandemic recession to an inflation crisis,” Gilman said. “Making up the difference in $200 increase in rent or $400 increase in rent is a huge challenge for many families and for some it’s the difference between being in your home and losing your home.”

Programs and policies that stave off evictions are a triple win for communities in Gilman’s view. Landlords are paid without going through court proceedings, cities are more stable because people are not being displaced and putting strain on social services and renters remain housed.

“There is the human dignity aspect,” Gilman said of preventing evictions. “People get to stay in their homes. Not just housing but their homes.”

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