Creature-free comfort 

New state law aims to guarantee livable rentals

click to enlarge Cyndy Kulp has been fighting for rights of renters who, she - says, often are victims of unscrupulous landlords. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Cyndy Kulp has been fighting for rights of renters who, she says, often are victims of unscrupulous landlords.

One apartment complex became known to its tenants as "Cockroach Estates." Other renters complained their landlords would do nothing about backed-up plumbing, tenacious mold and peeling paint.

Colorado renters faced with such grunge used to have few options besides complaining, and Colorado Springs activist Cyndy Kulp heard many tales of woe during the years she worked as a housing advocate.

That could start to change, she says, with a new bill awaiting Gov. Bill Ritter's signature that would create a "warranty of habitability."

"Basically, it will put landlords on notice," Kulp says.

This year actually marked the fifth time state Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, has tried to get a law passed requiring landlords to maintain their properties to certain minimum standards. Merrifield says it is actually the 20th time a version of the law has been proposed since 1969.

Finally, the bill, HB 1356, made it through during the Legislature's 2008 session. At this point, almost every other state has similar guarantees.

"Colorado is way behind the curve," Merrifield says.

The bill would require landlords to maintain plumbing, heating and electrical systems in working order while keeping walls patched, floors in shape and door locks functional.

Renters who've complained about problems in writing with no response from landlords would be able to get out of their leases or even sue in some situations.

Merrifield says his motivation for taking another crack at the bill is tied both to news reports of shoddy housing and his personal experience. He remembers once renting an apartment in Manitou Springs and finding sewage backed into his bathtub on a Friday. He quickly called his landlords.

"They said they couldn't get over for four days," he says, and they suggested he "take a shower at a friend's house."

The bill is not perfect. Merrifield says it's unfortunate the bill requires renters to give written notice of housing problems instead of allowing them simply to call a landlord to complain. The bill also exempts landlords with four or fewer properties and stops short of allowing tenants to pay for repairs and deduct the cost from their rent.

Kulp calls the bill a first step, saying, "You've got to take baby steps before you can run." She suggests repair problems account for only a fraction of renters' struggles, with many battling to have their security deposits returned or getting charged excessive fees for late payments.

She gets riled up talking about tenants of an apartment building in western Colorado Springs who were dismayed when the rental company suddenly started sending them bills for utilities that had been included with their rent.

"What we need is a renters' movement," Kulp says. "I hate to see people get taken advantage of and stepped on."

Other bills of note:

If your July 4 celebration carries unexpectedly long into the weekend, you might be relieved that the state's ban on selling liquor, wine and full-strength beer Sundays ends only two days later.

Gov. Ritter already has signed into law one of the most remarked-upon bills of the legislative session, and July 6 will be the first Sunday when liquor stores are allowed to stay open.

Grocers and convenience stores, which now sell 3.2 beer on Sundays, are not too happy about the new law, which takes away a competitive advantage. A bill that would have allowed them to carry the more potent stuff failed this year, but you can expect this struggle to keep fizzing.

School shootings get everybody's attention, but state Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, says other problems such as youths trading prescription drugs at school, and teenage suicides will also be targeted with the creation of a new School Safety Resource Center in Colorado. Morse sponsored a bill creating the center inside the Department of Public Safety. The program will start doing research at five pilot sites, and eventually the center will have four or five employees to offer resources to school districts, colleges and universities.

More school teachers could try to get national board certification if the governor signs a bill backed by Merrifield into law. For three years, the teacher quality bill would award $1,600 annual stipends to teachers certified for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Teachers holding the certification who are at schools receiving low or unsatisfactory ratings would receive an additional $3,200.

Morse says the state is facing an $80-$160 million problem in its emergency rooms: "Trauma care is not being paid for, so the trauma system is starting to fray around the edges."

The trauma care funding bill, which awaits Ritter's signature, would try to help by requiring auto insurance companies to have customers sign a waiver if they choose to opt out of medical payment insurance, which is now carried by a small number of drivers.

"I'm hoping this will make people think twice" about declining the coverage, he says.

The legislation will try to speed up payments to ambulance services, trauma physicians and trauma care centers, which now see many bills settled after months of legal fighting, if at all.



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