Jones won't take on slumlords 

State senator rebuffs calls to back bill to protect tenants

click to enlarge Ed Jones
  • Ed Jones

City Council members say they're "appalled" by recent media reports about poor living conditions in many Colorado Springs apartment complexes.

So is state Rep. Michael Merrifield, who is proposing a new state law that would protect tenants against negligent landlords.

But the uproar hasn't moved state Sen. Ed Jones.

In a series of articles published last month, the city's daily newspaper highlighted problems with health- and fire-code violations and criminal activity at several apartment complexes in the Springs, many of them operated by local landlord Terry Ragan.

An earlier series of exposs by KKTV/Channel 11, titled "Landlords' Hall of Shame," made similar discoveries.

According to Merrifield, most of the apartment complexes singled out in the reports are located in Senate District 11, which Jones has represented for the past year. The district includes much of central and southern Colorado Springs as well as Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs. A few of the complexes are also in Merrifield's district, House District 18.

In response, Merrifield, a Democrat, decided recently to ask Jones, a Republican, to co-sponsor his bill. "I thought this would be a really logical and nonpartisan, bipartisan thing that we could do together," Merrifield said.

Jones, however, turned him down.

"He felt that there were good landlords out there, and he felt that legislation would be punitive towards them," Merrifield recalled.

Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

Tenants' rights

Channel 11's "Hall of Shame," which began airing in 2000, sparked an effort by the City of Colorado Springs to toughen its code enforcement, which was finalized last fall. Now, in the wake of the Gazette series, city officials say they may beef up enforcement even more.

But advocates for tenants say legal reforms are also needed at the state level, because Colorado law grants renters virtually no protections against unscrupulous landlords.

For years, state lawmakers have tried but failed to pass bills that would add such protections. In fact, Jones' predecessor, former state Sen. Mary Ellen Epps, introduced a bill two years ago that would give a tenant the right to break a lease if the landlord failed to fix a "major defect" in the tenant's rental unit.

Merrifield is now introducing a similar bill, which would allow a tenant to break his or her lease and have the security deposit returned if the tenant notifies the landlord of a problem with the apartment and the landlord doesn't respond within 15 days.

Currently, tenants who walk away from their leases are often sued by the landlords for lost rent, and they rarely get their deposits back.

Merrifield says only landlords who don't respond to tenants' concerns would feel the effect of the bill. "The legislation I am working on now in no way would be detrimental to anybody who's a good landlord."

Getting Republican support

As the sole Democratic state lawmaker from El Paso County, Merrifield has seen most of his bills killed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, in what he perceives is a calculated, partisan effort to hurt his chances of being re-elected in November.

Still, at least three local Republican lawmakers -- Reps. Bill Sinclair, Mark Cloer and Richard Decker -- have hinted they may support Merrifield's bill. Others, including Sen. Andy McElhany and House Majority Leader Keith King, oppose it.

Merrifield, meanwhile, has also rounded up tentative backing for the bill from prominent ministers in the city's Hillside Neighborhood, Jones' home turf. Among them are pastors Promise Lee of Relevant Word Ministries and Milton Proby of St. John's Baptist Church.

"They have agreed to support what I'm trying to do, and they have agreed to ask Sen. Jones to reconsider," Merrifield said.

The pastors, however, aren't hopeful they can influence Jones.

Proby, a longtime community leader whose church once trained Jones as a deacon, says the state senator hasn't kept in touch with his home base since he got into politics.

"He has not responded to this area, not even to me," Proby said. "We got him into the political area, but then, when he got in, he left the people that had supported him.

"Some politicians do that," Proby added. "They change."

-- Terje Langeland


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