Bills that became Colorado law this session could help people stay housed

Legislators also found money for affordable housing.

Apartments for rent in Washington Park West. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Washington Park West; real estate; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; residential

Apartments for rent in Washington Park West. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) Washington Park West; real estate; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite; residential

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Updates with governor signing several pieces of legislation into law.

Personal experience turned Cherry Creek schools teacher Melissa Wright into a housing lobbyist this session.

When she heard state legislators were considering making it easier for tenants to pressure landlords accused of failing to maintain safe, clean housing, she called state representatives to tell them how important she thought the idea was. She told them her own story involving mold in two apartments she’d rented. Wright ended up being connected with an advocacy group that fights for tenants and testifying at the Capitol.

The HB19-1170 proposal for which Wright testified was approved by lawmakers during this past session and later signed by Gov. Jared Polis. Wright also closely followed HB19-1106, which lawmakers also approved and which requires apartment owners to itemize how they use application fees from potential tenants and make an effort to refund any portion of the fees they don’t use.

Also approved was HB19-1309, which among other things creates a program for resolving disputes between mobile homeowners and the landlords from whom they rent plots. And HB19-1118, giving Colorado tenants more than three days to stave off eviction proceedings by resolving a problem such as being behind on the rent. And SB180, a Senate proposal to establish a legal defense fund for tenants facing eviction.

Proponents say many of the new measures will help people stay housed. Aubrey Hasvold, who manages advocacy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said she expects to see fewer evictions because of the $750,000 defense fund and the law increasing from three to 10 days the time tenants have to make an issue right before a landlord can start proceedings to get them out.

“I’ve been calling this the year of the renter,” Hasvold said.

It wasn’t just tenant-landlord issues. Legislators also found money to create affordable housing, another issue of interest to Wright, who tutors on the side of her classroom job and has two roommates in her Aurora townhouse “just to kind of try to survive in the city.”

“It’s hard to live near your school or the place where you teach,” Wright said.

According to research results released last week by the online real estate company Trulia, the Denver area is the third least affordable housing market for teachers among 55 large metro areas across the United States. Here, teachers can comfortably afford only 5.4 percent of available homes. Trulia looked at wage data and focused on homes currently for sale that teachers could buy spending no more than 30 percent of their income on mortgages. The study found the situation was even worse for restaurant workers, who can afford 0.2 percent of available homes in metro Denver.

The affordable housing funding measures the legislator adopted, and which Gov. later Polis signed, affect the Housing Development Grant Fund, to which developers can apply on a competitive basis for money to acquire, rehabilitate and construct affordable housing projects. Among the bills was HB19-1245, which capped the amount of sale tax money retailers can keep to cover administrative costs, bringing in about $23 million this fiscal year and about $48 million in the next to the Housing Development Grant Fund. At least a third of the new revenue has been earmarked for projects for households earning no more than 30 percent of the area median income.

Another House bill, 1322, takes money from the treasurer’s unclaimed property trust fund for housing grants. The unclaimed property money comes from such sources as dormant bank accounts that the state treasurer tries to put into the hands of individuals who have a legal claim. Hundreds of millions remain uncollected every year. Money from the unclaimed pot has during economic downturns been used for general fund spending. HB19-1322 could mean up to $30 million for the Housing Development Grant Fund from fiscal year 2020-21 through 2022-23.

HB19-1228, which Polis also made law, takes a different tact, doubling the annual aggregate cap from $5 million to $10 million that the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority can distribute in state low-income housing tax credits beginning next year through 2024. Developers who are awarded credits sell them to investors for cash they then use to build, so the move is likely to attract more investment in affordable housing across the state.

Andrea “Dre” Chiriboga-Flor, co-director of the advocacy group 9to5, said at one point during the busy session she was asked what plans she’d made for a signing ceremony for a bill. She realized she’d never been to such a ceremony because the proposals with which she’s been most involved over the years never made it that far.

“It’s been a really interesting year,” she said.

Celesté Martinez, whose United for a New Economy Colorado has worked with 9to5 and others on some of the legislation, said “the purple nature of our Capitol” had in the past stymied earlier versions of some of the bills that became law this session. But she and others say it wasn’t just the blue wave that made the difference in 2019. It was people like Wright, increasingly pressing politicians as the affordability gap puts pressure on more and more families.

Celesté Martinez, UNE organizing director, speaks at the Capitol during a news conference by supporters of a bill to allow rent control in Colorado. April 9, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Celesté Martinez, UNE organizing director, speaks at the Capitol during a news conference by supporters of a bill to allow rent control in Colorado. April 9, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said groups like hers didn’t have to paint a picture of a housing crisis for lawmakers.

“Everybody’s hearing it at their door,” she said.

The business community is listening as well, said Nancy Burke, who is vice president of government and community affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

“I know people have been anxious about housing prices, rent prices,” she said.

The Colorado Apartment Association supported measures such as the law expanding housing tax credits. Burke also applauded the application fee measure, saying it would help ensure renters and landlords knew what was expected of them.

Landlords and tenants clashed over some proposals that nonetheless passed. Among those was HB19-1309, the one creating a program for resolving disputes between mobile homeowners and the landlords from whom they rent plots.

Tawny Peyton, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Home Association, and Deborah Wilson, a lawyer who has represented manufactured home communities in Colorado for over 25 years, said in an email to Denverite that they believed provisions in HB19-1309 reduced business owners’ rights and increased their costs. But they acknowledged the measure provided additional protections for mobile home owners by giving them more time to move or sell their homes if they are evicted. They said the industry would work next session to refine the law.

“If lawmakers are looking for solutions to the affordable housing crisis, adding additional costs and burdens to providers only discourages growth and participation in this space,” Peyton and Wilson said in their joint statement. “Supply is the key to affordable housing and we’d love to work with communities and the legislature to promote more use of manufactured housing as a progressive means of assuring access to housing at an affordable price.”

A measure landlords staunchly opposed, SB19-225, stalled this session. Proponents acknowledged they did not have the votes among Democrats to topple Colorado’s nearly four-decade-old prohibition against rent control.

SB19-225, to “Authorize Local Governments To Stabilize Rent,” did not set a state standard. Instead, it would have allowed local authorities to decide for themselves whether to enact caps on how much rents could rise or to require developers to include rent-controlled units in new projects. The Colorado Apartment Association had argued rent control would drive developers and investors from Colorado’s rental market, and said decreasing supply was no way to respond to the housing crisis.

“Even that this bill has been introduced, even though it died, that’s scary for an investor,” Burke said.

Lawmakers and advocates say they’ll try again on rent stabilization next session. Bill writers encouraged by their success this year are also likely in the next to look at capping late fees charged to tenants who are behind on the rent, and for ways to increase the supply of alternatives to shelters such as tiny home villages.

“We are moving in a more progressive direction,” UNE’s Martinez said.

Burke said she would be pressing for creative, voluntary ways to increase housing supply. She’s suggested, for example, a statewide version of a subsidy program in Denver aimed at getting families earning below the area median income into market-rate apartments that are standing vacant.

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