“We’re not talking about a quick fix”: Advocates, Councilmembers urge Mayor Mike Johnston to increase rental assistance in 2024 budget

Doing so could keep people from being evicted and being unhoused — something he pledged to end during his first term, they argue.
6 min. read
City Councilmember Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez speaks at a press conference calling for increased rental assistance. Oct. 23, 2023.
Rebecca Tauber/Denverite

Mayor Mike Johnston has pledged to shelter 1,000 people living on the streets before the end of 2023, making visible homelessness the center of his early term.

During a press conference on rental assistance, followed by Monday's hours-long public comment hearing on next year's budget, housing advocates and some City Councilmembers made their pitch to the mayor: Adding $17.5 million toward rental assistance could go a long way toward keeping people housed and preventing the homelessness crisis from getting worse in an increasingly unaffordable city, they argued.

Johnston's original budget allocated $12.6 million to rental assistance. That's more than the 2023 budget but still $9 million less overall compared to recent years before federal pandemic funds dried up. He added an additional $3 million from a $17.5 million additional request from Council, citing the need to maintain 15% budget reserves.

"This is a significant increase in city funding for rental assistance compared to 2023, despite a significant decrease in federal support," he wrote in a letter responding to Council's request. But some members and advocates say it's not enough, and want him to amend the budget to fill the entire amount.

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At-Large Councilmember Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez emphasized during a Monday press conference on rental assistance that growing rates of evictions can directly lead to growing levels of homelessness.

"Increasing rental assistance directly supports the city's emergency response to homelessness and ensures that progress is lasting," Gonzales-Gutierrez said. "We're not talking about a quick fix. We want to get ahead of the issue before it happens."

Research from the Community Economic Defense Project estimates that Denver would need $55 million annually to halt evictions. More evictions were filed by landlords in the first eight months of 2023 than in the entirety of 2022; the city is on track to see the most amount of evictions since 2008.

Both rental assistance programs affiliated with the city are no longer taking applications for the year. Denver's federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program closed applications in early August, and the city's Temporary and Utility Assistance Program (TRUA) closed its applications for the rest of the year on Oct. 20 due to limited funds. TRUA will re-open next year.

Exactly how much funding it will get and how long applications will be accepted in 2024 are two questions at the core of this budget fight.

Experts also believe that eviction filings undercount the number of people unable to pay rent, with many families leaving their housing before an official eviction to avoid a filing on their record.

Community advocates rallied outside the City and County Building Monday to advocate for increased rental assistance.

Members of Coloradans for the Common Good, the Community Economic Defense Project and the Denver Metro Tenants Union held a press conference alongside Councilmembers Sarah Parady, Stacie Gilmore, Paul Kashmann and Gonzales-Gutierrez. Councilmember Shontel Lewis' chief of staff Tiffany Caudill read a statement on behalf of Lewis.

"Financially and morally, it is more cost effective and compassionate to keep people in their homes than to put them and their families out on the street and then try to find them housing," said Coloradans for the Common Good co-chair Marilyn Winokur.

Elicia Valdez spoke about her personal experiences with housing insecurity. In recent years, she has taken out loans and made use of state rental assistance programs to make rent. This year, her rent increased by 45%.

"I need rental assistance, I need help to keep a roof over my head and my family," she said. "It's a full time job getting assistance trying to piece together what I need to keep for me and my family safe and housed."

Special education teacher and Coloradans for the Common Good leader Rob Gould talked about how teachers see the effects of housing insecurity firsthand.

"We see students living out of their cars, in shelters, moving schools mid year and struggling with the anxiety that housing insecurity causes," he said. "It's time to make sure that our students' living environments are just as supportive of their learning environments."

Inside, Denverites demanded other changes to the budget, with many echoed calls for more rental assistance.

Speakers asked Council for a number of things: more money for traffic safety measures, more money for healthcare services, more money for police alternatives, more money for encampment resources. Some speakers asked Council to push for medical debt relief, something Councilmembers requested of Johnston that went unfulfilled. Others praised the addition of $2 million to continue Denver's Basic Income Project pilot program but asked for sustained funding in the future.

And dozens of people echoed calls for more rental assistance.

"[Renters are] an integral part of our entire city, they're an integral part of our entire economy, and yet they're having to fight for scraps," said Ian Coggins. "I'm tired of people I love and care for having to crowdfund for their rent."

Elina Rodriguez previously worked at an eviction clinic in Denver. She said most of the people she worked with worked at least one job, and lived with multiple roommates or family members.

"Tenants would sit on our bench, hopeless and afraid that they would be thrown on the street," Rodriguez said. "This right here is where eviction happens, in this very building just below our feet."

In the next few weeks, City Council will have the chance to propose amendments to the budget.

Amendments are rare, especially because the Mayor has veto power. In 2023, Council passed just one amendment by overriding the veto with nine votes, bringing one new crosswalk to each district. Budget amendments will be an early show of how Council and the Mayor's office will (or won't) work together.

Councilmember Stacie Gilmore talked about bringing a potential amendment if Johnston does not add additional funding for rental assistance. Councilmembers can propose amendments on Oct. 30 and Nov. 6.

"I implore Mayor Johnston to either reconsider his stance, or we have the votes there within Council," Gilmore said said. "This is the time for us to bring forward the people's voice."

Where the additional $14.5 million might come from is still unclear. Councilmember Sarah Parady mentioned drawing small portions of funding from other parts of the budget, or potential dipping into the 15% reserve the city keeps annually.

"Our reserves are higher than in some cities around the country, and I think this is the situation where it is an emergency," she said. "Taking a fine tooth comb to the budget, there are lots of little bits and pieces here and there that are just not at the same level of urgency, and I know all of our offices are working on that."

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