Saturday, May 16, 2020
COVID-19 may bring in its wake a wave of evictions as a state moratorium expires at the end of May. Housing and human services staff from Boulder county and city are hard at work trying to keep people in their homes, but while local agencies have access to government aid that was non-existent in the pre-pandemic era and many landlords have shown unprecedented benevolence, some advocates worry it may not be enough.
A combination of factors could create a perfect storm for evictions come late summer: cash-strapped nonprofits may run out of rental assistance dollars issued early in the crisis, just as courts start burning through their backlog of cases and out-of-work families hit the six-month mark of financial strain.
From conversations with community partners, “we’re very aware that come August, if there’s not some (additional) resources from the feds, there will be a need for us to step in,” said Kristin Hyser, Boulder’s deputy director of housing and human services. “We have some money identified that we can do something with.”
But, Hyser added, “it’s not a lot.”
‘We may not be able to help everyone’
Housing and human services typically fall under the county umbrella, but Boulder in recent years has increased its own spending. Still, the majority of COVID response will be handled by Boulder County.
A housing helpline has been established — in Spanish and English — to direct residents to the appropriate avenues. There are resources for older adults, families with children, undocumented immigrants, veterans, etc. Staff are also encouraging and assisting with access toother services: unemployment, SNAP, Medicaid or Medicare, food pantries and child care.
“People may not think of that assistance helping with rent,” said Jim Williams, Boulder County HHS spokesperson. “If they have help with (those things), then they have money for rent.”
The helpline is well staffed (14 employees) and resourced, Williams said. Years of planning have prepared the department for an economic crisis and potential budget reductions at the state level.
“Our agency is in very good financial position to provide support for an extended period of time,” Williams said. Even so, “we know we may not be able to help everyone in the community who needs help with housing.”
Boulder County is a better financial position than many municipalities because it relies heavily on property tax, which is assessed on an every-other-year schedule. Budget impacts won’t be felt until next year, assuming property values drop. Boulder County weathered the Great Recession with only minimal declines.
The city of Boulder is not so lucky. Nearly half its discretionary spending is sales tax-based. Revenues are already declining: retail sales tax collection dropped more than 5% in April, leading in part to a projected $41 million budget shortfall. Historic cost-saving measures are being taken, including the furloughing of 737 city employees.
Housing and human services saw the third-most reductions among city departments, losing 57% of staff. Some were seasonal employees, according to spokesperson Zach McGee, but reductions had an effect on day-to-day operations.
“People have doubled up on their jobs and duties,” McGee said, as well as “shifting” responsibilities and administrative tasks. “With staff furloughs, we really can’t take on new things.”
When asked directly if furloughs had affected the city’s ability to respond to coming evictions, McGee said they had not.
Rent help running dry
Boulder is “trying to maximize systems already in place” to help with evictions. That includes expanding mediation services for landlords and tenants beyond city limits and funding rental and utility assistance through existing programs.
Older Adult Services has paid out $452.77 for help with utilities as of April 17, and $2,905.34 for rent, according to McGee. Family Resource Schools provided $5,889 in rent and utility payments between March 13 and April 14.
Emergency Family Assistance Association received advanced rental assistance dollars for its Keep Families Housed fund. The monies were already budgeted, but the city paid the entire amount early rather than hold a second allocation until later in the year.
In 2020, $313,000 was supposed to help 450 families. But demand in the past six weeks has nearly outstripped that, according to Executive Director Julie Van Domelen: 400 families have received $388,109 in rental support.
Pre-COVID, EFAA would aid, on average, 150 families for $100,000 over a one-month span. (Disclosure: The author works for EFAA on a contract basis.)
City money pays for about half of Keep Families Housed, Van Domelen said. The balance is funded by individual donors, Boulder County HHS, the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, and other COVID-specific sources.
Van Domelen said EFFA predicts that over $900,000 will be needed for the three-month April to June period alone. Beyond that, the future is uncertain.
“EFAA is currently projecting how long it can sustain this level of financial assistance,” Van Domelen wrote in response to emailed questions.
Boulder’s Hyser said a Community Development Block Grant could be used to patch the gaps. The city received $485,056 as part of the federal CARES Act earlier this year. That will likely be divvied up for rental assistance, support for unhoused residents and economic development.
“We’re hearing from the state and feds there are more dollars to come,” Hyser said. “We are actively pursuing those; we’ll need those funds.”
Thousands may face eviction locally
How many renters are struggling is unknown. A report from eviction defense attorneys projected that, statewide, 450,000 tenants could be displaced. That was based on 25-30% unemployment; Colorado’s rate was 14.7% in April. Colorado Sun reported this week that the rate of new claims was slowing.
A survey from landlord group Colorado Apartment Association found that 11.2% of renters did not pay in full by May 5 — double last year’s delinquencies. Apartment Association data tends to skew toward more expensive units, so the real rate could be higher.
Locally, the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association reported 12% nonpayment in April among its members, who collectively own about 14,000 of the city’s rental units. That means 1,680 renters are already not paying — and that doesn’t account for nonpayment in non-BARHA units, which make up 37% of Boulder’s rental housing stock.
Though business closures have eased with a move to safer-at-home orders, a full economic recovery is all but impossible while coronavirus is still circulating. Restaurants and retail are operating on limited capacity; even if everything reopened tomorrow, people likely won’t feel comfortable frequenting businesses, resulting in limited employment opportunities.
BARHA’s guidance to its members is to work with tenants on payment plans and rent reductions. That was issued when evictions were off the table, due to governor’s orders and court closures, but just because those are ending doesn’t mean landlords should count on evictions as an option, said association president Todd Ulrich.
First, there’s the backlog of proceedings that were cancelled due to COVID that will need to be dealt with. They will be given priority, as will more serious cases related to health and safety — and “rightfully so,” said Ulrich. “There’s a whole lot more important stuff than evictions.”
Still, he acknowledged, “once the courts are open, owners are going to want their money.”
A glut of demand may itself contribute to slowdowns, particularly when combined with expected safety measures to limit the number of people who pass through the court. That may end up taking the form of reduced case load.
“We’re still encouraging everybody to work through it” rather than pursue evictions, Ulrich said. “There is no choice in the moment, and likely that choice is going to be limited for awhile.”
Landlords have been willing to play ball “in most cases.” He encouraged tenants to contact their property managers if they are worried about paying rent.
“We really are trying to get people to work it out,” Ulrich said. “I don’t think they get that at times.”
‘Flexibility and compassion’
Carin Armstrong, head of Boulder’s mediation services, echoed Ulrich.
“I’ve seen incredible flexibility and compassion” from property owners, she said. “Usually we see the worst, the most ugly situations.”
Still, dozens of renters have sought mediation, including some whose rents are being raised as leases come up for renewal. About 90 COVID-related calls have come in so far, Armstrong said — double the normal amount. She expects that to increase after May.
The service relies on a network of paid staff and trained volunteers, many of whom are professional mediators. The process is not mandatory, but Boulder is working to get courts to require it before legal eviction proceedings can begin. BARHA is on board.
Mediation is highly successful, Armstrong said. About 70% of court-mandated disputes related to nonpayment are resolved — though half the time, that still results in the tenant vacating the property.
The other half typically produce payment plans. It also keeps evictions off a renters’ record, which can negatively affect their ability to secure housing in the future.
“A lot of mediation is about connecting them to resources and getting more time to move out,” Armstrong said. “Mediations are pretty successful when people choose to come to the table.”
That element of choice is exactly why Bruce Wiener thinks mediation won’t be enough for the coming crisis. Wiener is an attorney and executive director of Bridge to Justice, a nonprofit offering reduced-cost legal representation to lower-income individuals. He handles evictions often.
Wiener notes that even if mediation becomes mandatory, its success is still dependent on mutual cooperation.
“Parties will only reach an agreement if both parties want to enter into an agreement,” he said. “The mediator is not a decision-maker. Mediation, at the end of the day, is an optional process.”
If a landlord can rent out a home to someone else, they have no incentive to accept reduced or delayed payments, Wiener said. Boulder has a preponderance of jobs that have not been affected by COVID closures, including in the high-paying tech fields.
“The fact that (some) rents are increasing just reinforces landlords’ belief that they can get a new tenant in quickly,” he said. “If landlords don’t feel a financial incentive to work with the tenant, I don’t think any amount of mediation will solve that.”
They may be participating in mediation now without the option of eviction, but Wiener predicts, come June, “those calls are going to turn into filings very quickly.”
A recent renter migration report from Apartment List showed no slowing of demand. About 66% of searches for Boulder County dwellings were from outside the metro. Researchers did drill down into pre- and post-COVID data — using World Health Organization’ March 11 official pandemic declaration as the dividing line — but there was no discernible difference.
“We observe very consistent trends across the pre-3/11 and post-3/11 periods,” wrote Chris Salviati, housing economist for the website. He noted the small sample size and the fact that real changes would take longer to see in the data.
“It may simply be too soon,” he said.
Of course, even attorneys can’t stave off evictions entirely when the issue is inability to pay. Like mediation, they can buy time by negotiating a settlement or getting cases dismissed on procedural grounds.
“At the very least, a valid procedural defense will get the tenant a trial,” Wiener said. The increased time and cost commitment can “incentivize” landlords to settle. “It definitely changes the decision-making calculus.”
Still, by the time things make it to Wiener’s desk, “the work we do is really triage.”
‘Everyone will get strained’
That’s why tenants’ rights groups and others called for rent freezes, something Boulder city council considered in late March. Elected officials ultimately passed for the same reason Governor Jared Polis has given in not pursuing the policy: The government has no authority to alter private contracts, they argued.
Polis’ extension of the eviction timeout also banned lenders and landlords from charging late fees due to inability to pay.
The issue of evictions has not been visited since the rent holiday discussion. Council was receiving weekly updates on housing and human services from Director Kurt Firnhaber, but the last one was April 21.
Still unknown is how the department’s budget may be handled under widespread reductions and new prioritization guidelines. Every department has been asked to slash proposed spending by 10%. Council will get a look at adjustments to the 2020 budget next week, but an in-depth discussion isn’t scheduled until late summer.
In the absence of adequate government resources, it’s imperative that private property owners pitch in, Boulder County’s Williams said. Concessions from landlords will help stretched-thin dollars go further.
“Putting it all on the tenant is not going to be a sustainable thing,” he said. “Working with people who are struggling is important right now.”
Thankfully, cooperation has not been in short supply during the pandemic, Armstrong said. But the shelf life of that charity is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t know how long they’ll be able to hang on,” she said.” Everyone may get more strained as this goes on.”
Resources for renters
Housing Helpline: 303.441.1206
Boulder County housing resources: boco.org/COVID-19Housing
City of Boulder FAQ: bouldercolorado.gov/family-services/eviction-resource-center
City of Boulder Community Mediation Service
Boulder, Gunbarrel, Nederland, Louisville, Superior and surrounding areas
City of Longmont Mediation Services
Longmont, Lafayette, Niwot, Lyons, Allenspark and surrounding areas
— Shay Castle, email@example.com, @shayshinecastle
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