Colorado House Democrats push pro-tenant bills amid housing debate

A slew of pro-tenant bills are beginning to wind their way through the Colorado statehouse as Democrats look to reshape the relationship between landlord and renter, a sign of shifting dynamics within the Capitol and the enduring effect of the pandemic on housing policy.

A half-dozen bills have or will soon be introduced in the state House that proponents say will better protect renters and save them money. The measures — all sponsored by members of the House’s Democratic supermajority — seek to tackle rising rent, prohibit certain provisions in lease agreements, and limit fees charged by landlords and the circumstances that allow for evictions.

Together, the constellation of bills has the potential to impact a large swath of the state: Roughly a third of Coloradans are renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lawmakers and supporters of the bills say the effort is a direct result of the impact of the pandemic on housing security, which required hundreds of millions of dollars in rental aid and other government intervention to stabilize. The pandemic’s economic disruption led to widespread concerns about mass evictions, bringing broader attention to what advocates say has long been a simmering crisis for low-income Coloradans and proof that government intervention can stave off displacement.

As advocates have worked to change how evictions are perceived, demographic shifts within the statehouse have made the Capitol more open to pro-tenant efforts, lawmakers said.

“I think we’ve finally gotten to the point where there’s a critical mass of people, in the state House especially, who rent our homes, who have rented our homes, who are keenly aware of how much this hurts our community,” Rep. Stephanie Vigil, a Colorado Springs Democrat and self-described low-income renter, said of the landlord-tenant relationship. “It hurts our families and keeps people down, and (we) are ready to shift that balance a little bit.”

The effort comes as Gov. Jared Polis and top legislative leaders say that addressing the state’s housing crisis is their top priority this year. Polis has said he wants to examine land-use policy in an effort to increase Colorado’s lagging housing stock. That alone promises a fight: It represents a first-in-decades attempt to reform land use and likely would require wresting some control over zoning decisions from local authorities.

The goal, supporters say, is to build more densely, encourage development around transit corridors and treat housing stock as a statewide, rather than local, concern. While the lawmakers pushing pro-tenant legislation are broadly supportive of that effort, they warn that building more isn’t enough. The benefits of land-use reform, along with investments made by the legislature in years past, will take years to bear fruit, they said.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “Land-use is structural, long-term. Tenant protections and just-cause eviction protections are immediate, clarifying for both the landlord and the tenant, and will help keep Coloradans housed.”

“Making housing more expensive”

Landlords and housing providers, meanwhile, warn that efforts to cap rents, to slow or limit evictions, and cut down on various fees will only further depress the state’s beleaguered housing development.

“There’s almost a hyperactivity (in the Capitol) in an attempt to change the laws that concern leasing properties from one person to another,” said Drew Hamrick, a senior vice president for the Colorado Apartment Association and board member of the state real estate alliance. “All of (these bills) have the effect of making housing more expensive to operate and discouraging investment in that housing going forward.”

Rep. Ryan Armagost, a Berthoud Republican who as a sheriff’s deputy served on the unit that handled evictions, described himself as “pro-landlord.” Contrary to Democratic concerns that property owners hold too much power, Armagost said he believes the balance has swung too far in favor of renters and needs to be rectified.

“(Tenants’) hard times should not be spread to somebody that’s doing the service of renting their property,” he said.

Hamrick expressed specific concern about a measure supported by Gonzales, together with Denver Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Javier Mabrey. The bill, which has yet to be introduced, seeks to establish “just cause” requirements for evictions in Colorado, meaning a limitation on why a tenant can be expelled from their unit.

The bill would allow evictions only for prescribed reasons, like when a tenant has “substantially” violated their lease without quickly rectifying it (like not paying rent). It would also give tenants a right of first refusal when their lease expires and prohibit landlords from unilaterally choosing not to re-up a renter, unless the property owner is willing to pay a relocation fee.

Hamrick criticized the bill as limiting the power of landlords over their own property and intervening in what should otherwise be a negotiation between renter and owner.

The policy isn’t new: Similar bills have been passed in other states, like California and New Jersey, and just-cause eviction protections were endorsed by the White House last month. Gonzales and Gonzales-Gutierrez tied the policy’s arrival here directly to the ending of pandemic-era rental assistance in Colorado, which comes just as evictions are ticking back up to pre-pandemic levels. The money for rental assistance ran out, Gonzales said. The need for help hasn’t.

Bills “based on our lived experiences”

Mabrey, an eviction defense attorney, is also the primary sponsor of a bill that would allow local governments to enact rent control and stabilization policies. He and other supporters have said rent caps should be a resource available for local officials who want to use it, tucked into a housing toolbox alongside land-use reform and other tenant protections. Others — including Polis — have warned of “unintended consequences” of the policy, like increased housing costs and stagnating development.

Beyond rent control, there’s Vigil’s bill, HB23-1099, which seeks to nix application fees for prospective tenants by creating a “portable” background screener. Under the measure, tenants could pay for one background check and use it for 30 days’ worth of applications across different property owners.

Rep. Junie Joseph is backing another bill to slow evictions for low-income or disabled tenants who receive direct cash assistance from the government. A bill from Rep. Steven Woodrowwould prohibit several types of common provisions in lease agreements and remove various fees for tenants, like the one levied against renters who don’t provide notice that they’re moving out.

“I think you’re seeing those bills that are coming through based on our lived experiences of who we are,” said Joseph, a Boulder attorney and renter. “We are working-class people, a majority of us or a lot of us. We’re young. We’re dealing with those same issues, renters’ rights issues.”

Hamrick, of the apartment association, said he had concerns about all of the pro-tenant bills. He reiterated that slowing down evictions, cutting fees and capping rents will cause property owners to either stop developing or raise rental prices to make up for lost revenue. The state needs more housing, he said, and anything that gets in the way of that needs to be scrutinized.

Hamrick said he thought the bills were “counterintuitive” to Polis’s push to build more housing. In a statement Wednesday, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill reiterated that increasing supply was the governor’s priority. Cahill said that Polis was “skeptical of bill ideas that could lead to higher rents or home prices.” Though Cahill didn’t name specific legislation, Polis has previously used that same warning about rent control.

“He will monitor other bills as they move through the legislative process,” Cahill said of Polis, “and the governor’s goal is to save people money on housing, and he will apply that lens when reviewing any legislation.”

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