Mercy measure for renters 

Governor mum about tenant rights bill hailed as anti-homelessness protection

Gov. Bill Owens won't say whether he would sign a bill seen by tenant rights advocates as a way to help people who struggle each month to make ends meet.

"He hasn't reviewed this bill yet and doesn't have a position on it," said Mark Salley, a spokesman for Owens.

Meanwhile, in the Legislature, there's a lot of optimism surrounding House Bill 1061, drafted by Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs. The bill limits late fees and requires landlords to return deposits within one month instead of two.

If the bill is passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and is signed by the Republican governor, it would be considered the first major victory for tenants in 18 years of legislative attempts.

"When push comes to shove, landlords have most of the power," Merrifield said. "I'm particularly concerned about low-income tenants, the ones who have few resources to fight for their needs."

The bill, Merrifield's third try at a bill to help tenants since he entered the House in 2003, was approved in the Business Affairs and Labor Committee in an 8-5 vote last week.

Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs was the only Republican in the committee to support the measure. He said he voted for the bill because he was moved by the testimony of renters who said they wanted more protections, such as copies of their leases.

"I voted to let it see further light," Liston said, adding that he still hasn't decided if he will support the bill when it comes to a vote on the House floor.

The bill is more moderate than versions in years past, said Cyndy Kulp of the Colorado Springs Tenant Rights and Action Coalition. Unlike past versions of the bill, Merrifield chose not to add a "major defects" provision that would give tenants the right to walk away from their leases if a landlord ignores requests for substantial repairs on a property.

The coalition supports the bill anyway, Kulp said, adding that advocates for tenants hope the bill will pass, acting as a first step to further renters' protections.

Linda Claussen, who rents an apartment in Colorado Springs, wants legislators to pass the bill.

She accrued $195 in late fees and another $70 in "service charges" after her $500 rent check bounced in November. She was nearly evicted, but allowed to stay after her fianc and a lawyer brokered an 11th-hour agreement with her landlord. Now she is playing catch-up to pay back rent, fees and $200 in legal bills.

"I never have understood if you can't pay one fee why they add another one on," Claussen said.

If Merrifield's bill were law, Claussen's fees would have been no more than 15 percent of her monthly rent, or $75.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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