Inside Colorado lawmakers’ failed effort to extend eviction moratorium

In the closing hours of Colorado’s 2020 legislative session and with a statewide eviction moratorium set to expire, Senate Democrats worked feverishly on a last-minute plan to protect hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who may be at risk of eviction in the coming months.

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, hoped to extend the moratorium through October. As she spoke emotionally on the Senate floor about housing insecurity, Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, was working to broker a last-minute deal. But late Thursday night, it seemed unlikely that it would come together before the legislature adjourns in coming days.

There’s additional urgency beyond lawmakers’ calendar: Gov. Jared Polis, responding to ongoing economic ruin and job loss, issued a temporary executive order banning evictions and foreclosures, and it expires at the end of this week. If the legislature does not act by then, the matter will fall back to the governor. Polis said he’s committed to working with the General Assembly to protect renters but has not committed to extending his executive order. Few expect he will take action on the scale of what Gonzales and others have in mind.

“At the end of the day, if the legislature doesn’t act, the responsibility of responding to the impending tsunami of evictions that threaten our state — upwards of 400,000 people, 61,000 in the city and county of Denver alone — that all goes back to Gov. Polis,” Gonzales said. “It’s extraordinarily clear that he will have to act, if we don’t do something.”

Unemployment has shot into double digits in the state since the coronavirus took hold here in March, creating an unexpected financial crisis for many Coloradans.

“The big moment that this all will become acute is on July 31, when federal enhanced unemployment benefits turn off,” said Sam Gilman, co-founder of Colorado’s Eviction Defense Project. “The renters who have relied on this funding as a lifeline to be able to pay their rent will immediately face huge difficulty paying their rent.”

Landlords have been free to continue filing evictions during the governor’s moratorium, even though they haven’t been processed. The floodgates could open as soon as next week, depending whether and how the legislature and Polis act.

Gonzales spent the week in nearly nonstop negotiations, trying to secure support from at least 17 other members of the 35-member Senate to pass an eviction moratorium. There are 19 Democrats in the chamber, but several have wavered, as is often the case with progressive legislation here. Democratic Sen. Joann Ginal of Fort Collins owns rental property herself and has proven an especially difficult sell on a moratorium extension.

A month ago, Democrats said they had plans for a housing relief bill. They would not pursue a rent and mortgage freeze but were considering an extension of the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, a temporary ban on late-fee enforcement by landlords, and an extension of the current 10-day grace period someone has to come up with the money and keep their home.

But once the legislature reconvened May 26, lawmakers who had been bullish on sweeping housing relief said they weren’t sure what the plan was. Talks stalled to the point that Gonzales and the Senate majority leader, Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said late Wednesday they didn’t know how they would proceed.

“Quite honestly, it’s been landlords,” Gonzales said, when asked why it has taken so long to introduce the proposal. “Fundamentally, I don’t believe the Apartment Association wants a moratorium. They — how should I say this? — they want to be able to continue to evict people even amidst the pandemic.”

Democratic Sen. Faith Winter lamented late Thursday that the housing lobby is still potent, even as housing insecurity skyrockets.

“Power dynamics in this building haven’t changed,” said Winter, who along with Gonzales is one of the Senate’s progressive leaders.

The association has indeed been working behind the scenes and on social media to thwart the planned Gonzales bill. But spokeswoman Michelle Lyng rejected the idea that property owners want to evict tenants. Lyng noted that on average, landlords pocket only a fraction of the amount of money they bring in from rents. The majority goes to mortgage payments, upkeep and staffing, she said, arguing that if the legislature suspends evictions, small-scale landlords in particular may struggle to meet their obligations.

Lyng said landlords want to keep tenants and use eviction filings as a last resort.

The prominent eviction law firm Tschetter Sulzer has been sending out regular email blasts, urging recipients to be prepared to fight against a possible eviction moratorium bill.

“We cannot stress enough, that we need ALL of our clients to call and/or email these senators IMMEDIATELY and express your opposition,” read one email.

As word has spread of the legislature’s last-minute push for a temporary eviction ban, activists on the pro-moratorium side rallied their troops, too.

Mariah Wood, a 24-year-old who lost her job in March, was seen confronting Ginal at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“I actually had to leave my apartment and throw out pretty much everything I own that doesn’t fit in the backseat of my car,” Wood told the senator. “I heard you’re actually opposing the eviction moratorium. … If it doesn’t go through, people are going to end up homeless, like I am right now.

“That’s on your hands.”

Ginal quietly responded that Wood was misinformed and after about a minute she walked away. Ginal told The Post that she later returned to speak with Wood and other members of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“I feel for them,” the senator said. “I’m trying to find a balance.”

Ginal declined to be interviewed beyond that. Some of her Senate colleagues are quite frustrated with her.

Meanwhile, the legislature continues to advance House Bill 1410, which would provide about $20 million of assistance to renters and homeowners with mortgages. Gonzales could move to tack an eviction moratorium onto that bill as an amendment. She said she’s open to any course of action that preserves the moratorium, but the possible paths seem fewer and fewer.

“I’ve been on 11 p.m. phone calls, 7:30 a.m. phone calls, to have these conversations with my colleagues, the stakeholders, to appeal to people’s better natures and remind them of the crisis that we are still very much in,” she said. “I feel like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, and I think there are some members of my caucus who are more concerned about the landlords, and making sure that they’re whole.”

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