Denver City Council asks Governor Polis to do something he says he can’t do: freeze rent payments

Hey, just askin’.

Downtown apartments seen from inside The Confluence Denver, Oct. 26, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Downtown apartments seen from inside The Confluence Denver, Oct. 26, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photos

The Denver City Council unanimously passed a proclamation Monday urging Colorado Governor Jared Polis to freeze rent payments for anyone unable to pay because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter asks Polis “to use the full legal extent of his emergency powers to impose an immediate moratorium on residential and small business commercial rent payments for those unable to pay” through no fault of their own as the pandemic ravages the economy.

Council members also asked Denver’s congressional delegates and President Donald Trump to freeze mortgage payments for people who were similarly affected.

But proclamations aren’t policies. They’re symbolic gestures, albeit official. Polis’s office said he can’t stop landlords and lenders from collecting payments from tenants and homeowners. Mayor Michael Hancock has said the same thing.

“No governor, no president has the legal ability to suspend the sanctity of contract law,” Polis said during a press conference Monday. “No state has done that. What we want to do in Colorado, what I have done, is really make sure that we take the strongest steps of any governor to help protect renters.”

In an email to Denverite, a spokesperson for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said he “has not developed a position on freezing rent or mortgage payments. However, he has urged the courts to pause all eviction orders during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Polis’s office ordered the Department of Local Affairs to work with property owners and landlords to avoid evictions sparked by nonpayment and has ordered that state money not be used for evictions. Denver’s government has stopped assisting with such evictions, too.

As part of his emergency order, Polis asked landlords and banks to be lenient with clients. The move comes up short because it’s “not binding,” Denver’s proclamation states. In the document, council members claim the statute outlining his emergency powers give him more authority than he’s exercising.

While local politicians have limited power, City Councilwoman Robin Kniech spoke with attorneys who have looked into the governor’s power to waive state laws in an emergency “and that is where this power would likely originate from,” she told Denverite. A legal analysis would come if and when a state or federal bill was introduced, she said.

Council members have no illusions of grandeur — it’s the opposite. They say they’re not doing anything more than starting a conversation because that’s the extent of their power.

“And just to remind my constituents, proclamation is not policy,” said Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval. “We are asking our Colorado delegation and other national leaders who have more power than us at the municipal level to have this conversation.”

Councilman Paul Kashmann stressed that the request is not meant to slight landlords. Relief for them needs to be part of a holistic and “complex” solution.

Monday’s vote came after prodding from activists fighting for relief for workers.

“The Governor’s eviction stay, while welcome, is the quiet before the storm,” Josh Downey, president of Denver Area Labor Federation, said an a statement. “Once the stay is lifted, thousands of people will no longer have homes. It’s going to lead to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. It is simply not fair and not responsible to order people to stay at home and not to work but not have relief for their basic needs, like paying rent and mortgage. People simply don’t have the savings to ride this out.”

Cities around the U.S., including Aurora, have issued similar proclamations.

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