The severity of Denver’s housing crisis shows in May’s record-breaking eviction filings

Last month, the courts saw 1,216 eviction filings. Those numbers are not likely to get better without big policy changes and significant investments, according to advocates.
7 min. read
Elyria Swansea. Feb. 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

As anti-poverty groups call on the next mayor to end evictions for nonpayment by 2025, the number of eviction filings in Denver County Court have just continued to rise.

What's causing the hike?

"I think it's a really simple story," said eviction defense attorney Zach Neumann, who heads the Community Economic Defense Project. "Rental prices are up, and the availability of emergency rental assistance is down."

In May, the city saw more eviction filings than any other month in the past five years, surpassing pre-pandemic numbers.

Each filing represents a household facing homelessness, with higher mortality rates and an increased likelihood of both physical and mental health issues, according to Princeton University's Eviction Lab.

Yet according to the Colorado Apartment Association, a landlord trade group, there is a citywide upside to evictions.

"A healthy rental housing market requires a functioning eviction system," noted Drew Hamrick, general counsel and senior VP of government affairs for the group, in November. "Otherwise, there would be economic incentive to hoard housing and no units available for people to move into. "

Rents remain high, even as vacancy rates have rebounded from pandemic lows.

Here are the eviction filing numbers.

In a typical year, 3.6 million eviction cases are filed in courts across the United States, according to the Eviction Lab.

In May 2023, there were 1,216 eviction cases launched in Denver alone, compared to 784 in 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the economy.

During the pandemic, eviction filings dropped after the Centers for Disease Control issued an eviction moratorium.

Only 7 eviction cases were filed in May of 2020, 228 in May of 2021 and 542 in May of 2022.

The moratorium plus federally funded rental assistance helped keep people housed. But the moratorium ended in Oct. 2021, the federal government has not renewed that funding, and those rental assistance programs have been shut down by both Denver and the state.

If eviction filing rates keep pace in 2023, with roughly 1,107 a month, they will surpass the highest annual number since at least 2008.

The record year, in that time frame, was 2010, when the city saw 10,241 in total, or roughly 850 a month.

If the trend continues this year, we're on pace to hit nearly 13,300 eviction filings in 2023.

The full scope of housing insecurity isn't captured in eviction filing numbers, which don't count every person who lost a home after a landlord threatened eviction.

Not all filings lead to a sheriff's completed eviction. Some households move before their court dates. A few win against their landlords in court.

"Eviction filings are merely the tip of the iceberg and do not reflect the actual number of Denver families displaced each month," according to a letter to Denver's next mayor sent by a coalition of more than 20 anti-poverty organizations, including the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Communtiy Economic Defense Project.

"Research suggests that for every eviction filing, two more households self-evict before a filing occurs, often due to landlord pressure," the letter continued.

By that count, nearly 3,650 households likely faced displacement last month.

Denver has a homelessness crisis. How does this relate?

The Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative's point-in-time survey identified the primary reasons people became homeless.

For nearly 30%, an inability to pay rent or mortgage led people to homelessness. For nearly 26%, eviction or requests to leave their homes were the cause.

Those reasons are followed by lost jobs or an inability to find work, relationship problems or family break-ups, and finally alcohol or substance abuse problems.

Outside of keeping people housed, healthy and alive, there are economic benefits to the city when people are able to stay in their homes, according to advocates.

"The City's average cost of serving someone experiencing homelessness is between $42,000 and $104,000 annually," the anti-poverty advocates wrote in their letter to the mayoral candidates. "The low end of this range is double the cost of the median annual rent in Denver. It is far easier to occasionally assist neighbors struggling with unexpected emergencies than bear the enormous cost of their displacement."

Denver voters and Colorado policymakers have resisted sweeping changes to the current approach to eviction.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled statehouse shot down multiple proposed renter protections in the last legislative session.

"I think the legislature this year was very happy to take incremental steps," Neumann said. Those included adding state-funded emergency rental assistance and changes to the eviction court process. "They were not interested in delivering systemic change that would fundamentally alter these numbers."

Among the policies anti-poverty groups fought for and the Democratic-controlled legislature defeated were a Just Cause Eviction policy that would make it harder for landlords to evict a tenant for no-payment eviction. Lawmakers also chose to keep on the books a law that blocks municipalities from enacting rent control.

The argument against those policies is that they could make it too expensive for landlords to do business. Opponents warned that housing providers would leave the market, and as a result, supply would drop and prices rise.

Even Gov. Jared Polis' signature market-driven solution to the housing crisis proved unpopular. Lawmakers shot down his proposal to curtail exclusively single-family zoning and allow more dense housing to be built in communities across the state.

In November, Denver voters blocked a policy that would have had landlords pay a per-unit fee to support free legal defense for every tenant facing eviction in court.

The city already offered free legal defense to people making under 80% of the area median income, currently $62,600 for an individual.

 As funding dries up, a lawyer isn't always enough to keep a household housed.

"It is really helpful and important to have a lawyer when you're facing eviction, but it's not the only thing you need," Neumann said. "In a nonpayment case, if you're unable to pay the rent, you will eventually be evicted even if you have an attorney.

"And so what we always push for as an organization is giving renters access to multiple tools -- rental assistance, attorneys, housing navigators -- so that they can do all that as needed and all that is required to keep their housing," he said.

And those tools are less available these days.

"The primary one, rental assistance, is just incredibly hard to come by now, because the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program is wrapping up and the state rental assistance portal is closed, and the city funds are also very constrained," Neumann explained.

So what's next for advocates fighting against eviction?

With Mayor Michael Hancock's administration on the way out and a new mayor -- either Kelly Brough or Mike Johnston -- taking office, nearly two dozen anti-poverty groups, legal organizations and homelessness service providers are pushing the city's next CEO to do more to keep people housed.

According to the advocates' letter, the next mayor should:

"From an outcome-based perspective, the only thing that matters is clients' keeping their homes," the letter stated. "Where assistance fails to keep people housed, we must pursue new or adjusted approaches. In the end, we must ensure they're well-managed, responsive to clients, and delivering their intended benefits quickly."

The changes these groups propose are neither cheap nor slight reforms.

"If we really want to stop homelessness in Denver, if we want to stop evictions, then we've got to make very meaningful ongoing investments in rental assistance and services and in eviction defense," Neumann said. "And it's not the kind of thing that we can address through incremental policies or minor investments."

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