When she finally found an apartment that met her top criteria — within her budget, safe and close to a mass transit stop — Elyse Eltrich moved quickly to secure it even though it was in a building that was still under construction. With a few clicks of the keyboard, she sent the management company an electronic transfer covering $50 for an application fee, $250 for an administration fee and $100 for a security deposit.
Days before she was to move in on Aug. 19, Eltrich got an email from a manager at Alexan Arapahoe Square, a Five Points building managed by the international company Greystar, letting her know that because of a “significant construction delay” her apartment wouldn’t be ready until winter. After phone calls and a few more emails, Eltrich was able to secure a promise her $400 would be refunded, via a check sent from Florida. Her check arrived just over two weeks later.
The contrast between Eltrich paying swiftly and giant Greystar sending her refund by mail could be seen as an illustration of a power imbalance in favor of landlords in Colorado that is felt most sharply in Denver, where people earning moderate and low incomes have to compete for too-few homes they can afford. Others might counter that it’s the market, not the tenant-landlord dynamic, that’s out of whack and that markets shift.
But let’s go back to the beginning for Eltrich.
The Cleveland native came to work for a Denver TV news station four years ago. She later switched to an entertainment company, moving to the southern suburbs to be close to the office. As a promotions manager and scheduler she makes about $10,000 under the annual area median income for a single person, which is $65,000, and she has student loans to pay. She earns about twice what researchers say a single person needs to get by in Denver without resorting to public or private aid.
When Eltrich learned in the spring that her rent in the suburbs was going up $200, she started looking for a new place, one in a more walkable neighborhood in Denver and close to a light rail stop so she could commute without a car. She set a rent limit of $1,500, about average for Denver at the time, according to the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. Eltrich hoped to pay a few hundred dollars less.
“I make a decent living,” Eltrich said. “I don’t understand how people make it work in this market.”
“I don’t need all those extras. I just need a box. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a pet,” she said.
“I can’t believe how much of a challenge it has been to find just a livable space.”
In a study released earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined just 26 homes were available for every 100 of the 80,368 poorest households in metro Denver. That means people pay more than they can afford, with affordable typically defined as 30 percent or less of annual income. At the other end of the spectrum, families had a surplus of units, 103 for every 100 households earning 100 percent of AMI. The disparity is embodied in Five Points, where new buildings with banners declaring them “luxury” rise up around Sonny Lawson Park, where people experiencing homelessness camp during the day.
The Alexan, catty-corner from Sonny Lawson, is about halfway between RTD light rail stations at 25th and Welton and 20th and Welton. Eltrich was intrigued when she first ran across details about the building. But she continued with a search she had started in mid-May because the Alexan was still under construction.
At times, apartment-hunting felt like shopping at a car dealership, Eltrich said. Managers would pressure her to act quickly because other potential tenants were lining up. In late July, failing to find something comparable and with the lease on the apartment she was planning to leave expiring Aug. 6, she revisited the idea of the Alexan. She learned she could get a 450-square-foot studio for $1,310. She couldn’t visit the unit, but saw a video of what was planned. She was told it would be ready by Aug. 1. She applied and put down the $400. She never signed a lease.
In response to her application she got a call during which she was informed the opening might be delayed a day or two and that the fire department still needed to do a last inspection. A few days later she got another call. The fire department inspector had been delayed, and now the move-in date was Aug. 15.
Eltrich began making plans to move, on the assumption she would sign a lease when the apartment was ready. She secured storage for her furniture for $100 a month and a temporary stay at a friend’s apartment for herself. Alexan managers promised to cover storage and moving costs up to $1,000. On Aug. 5, days after an update from Alexan telling her Aug. 15 was still opening day, Eltrich moved out of her apartment in the suburbs and in with a friend in North Capitol Hill, taking little with her.
“If I had had any idea this was the journey I’d be on, I would have packed for more than 10 days,” she said.
Eltrich booked movers for Aug. 15 to get her furniture to Five Points. She later moved the movers to Aug. 19 because Alexan managers, citing delays by the fire department, couldn’t be pinned down. On the evening of Aug. 14 she got that email about a significant construction delay.
“They call me and I am not a happy girl,” Eltrich said, saying she told Alexan managers, “I am now homeless because of you. I have no back-up plan.”
A few days later, she got an offer of a studio in a nearby building managed by Greystar, but the price is $1,515. Eltrich believes a fairer offer would have been an apartment for the same rent — $1,310 — she’d expected to pay at Alexan Arapahoe Square. She decided to look elsewhere and asked for a refund.
Her refund check reached her mail box Sep. 4.
In a Sept. 10 email response to a request for an interview, Greystar Management Services said it was the property manager for Alexan Arapahoe Square and “is not involved with the construction process or required inspections. We have forwarded your inquiry on to the owner of this community. They will respond to you directly if they wish to comment or issue a statement.”
No further communication has been received since from Greystar or the owner.
Deborah Wilson, a Denver area lawyer who represents landlords — but not Greystar — said she would have advised management to act as Greystar did in Eltrich’s case. Some of the smaller, Denver-based landlords she represents would have been able to pay Eltrich back more quickly, Wilson said, adding that bureaucratic processes in bigger companies can be slow.
“I think they handled it fairly well,” Wilson said. “It’s unfortunate that they had a Florida office.”
“This is a lose-lose for both sides,” the lawyer said. “The landlord doesn’t have a tenant in there, and she doesn’t have a place.”
Wilson said easing Denver’s housing shortage requires building more homes, and the building boom has led to delays on some projects.
The Apartment Association of Metro Denver said nearly 4,000 new apartments were completed in the first quarter of this year, giving Denver metro a total of more than 350,000 units. From the second quarter of 2018 to the second quarter of 2019, average rents rose 2.4 percent to $1,520, while overall inflation rose 2.7 percent. The association, which represents landlords, saw the lag as an indication the building boom is having an effect on rents.
This last state legislative session saw a push by tenant rights advocates and legislators to strengthen the hands of renters. When she heard Eltrich’s story, Celesté Martinez of the advocacy group United for a New Economy, had questions about the fees Eltrich had paid.
One of the new laws that emerged last session requires apartment owners to itemize how they use application fees from potential tenants to ensure they are used only to process applications, which proponents hope would keep fees down. Other fees, such as the $250 administrative fee Eltrich paid, aren’t covered by the law. Martinez said lawmakers may look more broadly at fees this coming session.
Wilson, the lawyer, said administrative fees can help cover the costs of ensuring landlords are in compliance with fair housing and other laws. She said smaller landlords often don’t charge them, and that when they are charged they are refunded if the applicant is not approved.
Some dubbed the recent legislative session the year of the renter. But Martinez and Jason Legg, a lawyer who represents tenants, said work still needs to be done.
Eltrich did eventually find another apartment within her budget. Her move-in there was delayed by maintenance issues.
Have you used any of the new laws meant to protect tenants? Have you noticed landlords trying to get around them? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org