A part-time junior high and high school music teacher who lost his job in March, he is one of millions of Americans — a number that grew since the federal enhanced unemployment aid ended last month — facing a housing crisis due to the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19.
Financial assistance through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, local unemployment aid and eviction bans have largely protected Americans, including people in El Paso County, from eviction. Without an end to the virus in sight and lacking any guaranteed lifeline from the federal government, housing advocates and experts warn that the country could face the displacement of millions who cannot pay rent.
A report this month from Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank, predicts that without an extension of federal aid, 25 to 36 percent of Colorado households are at risk of eviction. Those estimated 500,000 Coloradans are a drop in the bucket compared to the 19 to 23 million renters nationwide risking eviction by the end of 2020.
In Colorado, a United States Census Bureau survey meant to measure the impact of the pandemic, found in mid-July that 14.8 percent of state residents had no confidence in their ability to pay rent.
The impacts of the housing crisis are disproportionately impacting women and people of color. In Colorado, 3 percent of white people weren’t confident they could pay rent compared to more than 27 percent of Latino people and 8.9 percent of Black people, according to the last week of the Census survey. Five times as many women than men responded that they had no confidence in their ability to pay rent, and almost 50 percent of respondents reported a loss in employment income, the survey found.
Numbers of eviction filings have grown since the June expiration of a moratorium issued by Gov. Jared Polis, but they still represent a fraction of normal pre-COVID-19 levels. Federal and state aid helped people pay rent, and those who couldn’t pay could not be kicked out immediately due to the moratorium and lengthy eviction process, which can take an average of two months and up to four months from the date of nonpayment until the Sheriff’s Office forces tenants to move out.
It may be late this year before the county and state see an increase in evictions due to the end of federal aid in July. Since March, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has processed 268 court orders for evictions. The Civil Unit enforced 38 between July 25 and Aug. 12.
Despite the relatively low number of eviction filings in the state and El Paso County, Census data shows that people continue to struggle to pay rent. But the city, county, nonprofits and some landlords are working hard to prevent evictions through yet-to-be-distributed CARES Act grants, lower negotiated payments, federal aid and state assistance programs. An increase in evictions benefits no one, but the fight is daunting since the need for assistance will extend beyond the return to “normal.” And when the pandemic will end is anyone’s guess.
Colorado and the nation were facing an affordable housing shortagebefore the pandemic. The most recent El Paso County assessment in 2014 predicted a lack of more than 26,000 affordable housing units by 2019. The city’s 2020 Annual Action Plan reported that there are 15,000 households at risk of homelessness due to housing costs; more than 4,000 of those households have a child 6 years old or younger. The cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Colorado Springs has increased by 8.3 percent in the last year to $1,300, according to a national report by Zumper, a rental listing company.
Most Coloradans have less than a thousand dollars in savings, which makes it difficult to survive even a three-month crisis, according to Zachary Neumann, founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and a contributor to the Aspen Institute’s August report.
“We have a system where, for so many Americans, their ability to pay rent depends on full-time employment and never missing a paycheck. They have no buffer,” Neumann says.
Limited access to credit, no savings and income tied to full-time employment led to a reliance by many on enhanced unemployment payments after shutdowns began in the spring. That additional $600 a week has run its course.
“Now, they’ve run out of options,” Neumann says.
The Aspen Institute’s report shows that even with government aid, renters have resorted to taking out personal loans, borrowing cash, using credit cards and shifting budgets away from other necessities to pay for housing. Thirty million Americans reported in the Census survey in mid-July that they did not have enough food. Jody Raye, who asked not to use his full name due to a pending employment opportunity, has relied on a Monument-based nonprofit, Tri-Lakes Cares, to survive the first stage of the pandemic.
He burned through his savings in April after losing his teaching job to school closures and due to medical bills related to chronic back issues and hypertension. He does not have insurance and did not qualify for unemployment. Jody Raye has not received unemployment aid since March, though he is still disputing the decision, he says. He has not received an update.
Jody Raye says he’s never been “rich,” but this is a level of difficulty unlike any before. In April he began considering living without utilities, internet and a phone to make rent. But without a phone, he couldn’t find work. His life was simple before the pandemic — going to church, volunteering, hiking at Palmer Lake and traveling to softball tournaments to support his two granddaughters. His life has completely changed.
“I’m poor and desperate. There are moments where I realized, ‘Wow, normal is not normal anymore.’ My new normal is poverty,” Jody Raye says.
Tri-Lakes Cares has paid for Jody Raye’s car repairs, medical expenses, groceries and multiple months of rent. He hasn’t stopped trying to find work, and just made business cards with the hope of securing a source of income.
“I’m looking, you know? I’ll take any job,” he says. Over the past months, he has been lucky to make $100 a week — more often its nothing.
“We stand on the brink of an unprecedented housing crisis, unlike we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” Neumann says.
And the loss of housing can negatively impact long-term economic wellbeing and physical health.
“When someone’s evicted, basically every indicator of human wellbeing starts to decline,” he says. Not everyone who is evicted becomes homeless — some move in with family or to a cheaper home — but others move to hotels, homeless shelters and the streets.
“I think displacement from current housing is going to be incredibly significant, but it is not too late,” Neumann says. He thinks a bill passed by Congress that would put the majority of aid in the hands of tenants could avert a “good chunk” of the crisis.
Federal and local aid since March prevented mass evictions, but landlords without federally backed properties have been paying mortgages with no rental income.
David Hannum, an attorney who leads the Colorado Springs office for Robinson & Henry P.C., a law firm that specializes in representing landlords, says he has not seen a huge spike in clients filing evictions since August began. There has been an increase in termination agreements (where two parties agree to a lower payment for outstanding rent and end the lease early) between landlords and tenants in commercial and residential leases.
But Hannum acknowledges the demand may change in the coming months now that the federal unemployment aid has ended.
He primarily represents landlords who use rent from their rental properties to pay mortgages as well as people who count on the monthly payments as their primary income.
Evicting a tenant is expensive for a landlord. The process is long and drawn out and often leaves landlords without any rental income for months. Due to Gov. Polis’ order that lengthened eviction notices from 10 to 30 days, it now can take even longer. (See sidebar, right.)
Most of Hannum’s clients were forced to pay mortgages without income from tenant’s rent, he says. Some clients are considering selling their properties.
“Mom-and-pop” landlords own more than 45 percent of home and apartment rental units nationally, according to the Aspen Institute. More than half do not have access to lines of credit for emergencies such as a pandemic.
Another eviction moratorium or a rent freeze without financial assistance would lead to a wave of foreclosures, Hannum says, adding, “That’s not helping anybody in the long term.”
An increase in foreclosures would affect all sectors of the economy and could lead to an increase in urban blight, a reduction in public resources and a negative impact on public safety.
Hannum would like to see consistency in future government-distributed housing aid. “Hopefully, whatever comes around is more thought-out and more clear and concise and gives people a consistent, predictable path,”
Almost 1,500 evictions have been filed in El Paso County from the start of 2020 to Aug. 10. More than 75 percent of this year’s eviction filings happened before March, with a huge drop off during the federal and state moratoriums.
The data does not show eviction case outcomes, but rather the number of evictions filed in court by landlords. July saw 180 filings, and 31 evictions have been filed in the first 10 days of this month. If there is an eviction tsunami approaching, it has not hit the courts and will not result in a mass number of people being forced from their homes for months yet.
[image-6] Steve Posey, community development division manager for the city of Colorado Springs, says it is up to Congress to decide whether another “broad-based” stimulus package is passed.
The city and county governments are distributing $1.8 million of Department of Housing and Urban Development funding and recently received almost $6 million in Emergency Grant Solution federal funds for use over the next two years.
There is also increased funding available through the state’s Emergency Housing Assistance Program (EHAP) and Property Owner’s Protection Program (POP), which draws from more than $19 Million in CARES Act money.
And according to the Colorado Apartment Association, 96.3 percent of Colorado renters paid rent on time in July.
“Rent payments have remained high, in the mid-90 percentages, all through the COVID closures,” says Mark Williams, executive vice president of the Colorado Apartment Association. “While evictions may creep closer to normal rates in August, the number of evictions is far, far below Colorado’s averages, and we attribute this to the way the community has stepped forward to help renters.”
Posey says the assistance so far has worked, “and we have some money in the bank ... that we are going to be able to distribute to these housing agencies over the next 90 to 120 days.” The high rate of rental payments, he says, is proof that the financial aid is being used for housing.
“I think the community needs to understand that the nonprofit housing providers, the apartment association, property managers, apartment owners and community development — we are all very focused on keeping people housed,” Posey says. “We absolutely do not want to see a large number of people end up getting evicted.”
Posey is worried about the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 downturn and the already widening gap in household income versus cost of living in the city. He is also concerned contractions in the job market could exacerbate inequity.
Posey says tenants unable to make rent payments should talk with their landlord and take advantage of the many resources available.
Tri-Lakes Cares, the nonprofit assisting Jody Raye, has seen a steep increase in need for services since COVID-19 began. There’s been a 275 percent increase in housing assistance requests, and a 300 percent increase in requests for utility assistance.
Haley Chapin, executive director of Tri-Lakes Cares, says the nonprofit has seen an uptick in those who have reached out for August rent assistance since the federal aid ended.
Her organization is also struggling to pay staff and overhead costs due to increased COVID-19 precautions and demand for their services. The funding they have received has been directly for clients and does not help cover higher operational costs.
Some Tri-Lakes clients, while still receiving assistance from the nonprofit, are attempting to find other ways to make money. Some have sold blood plasma, scrap metal and personal possessions online — partly because there is a limit to the rent assistance that Tri-Lakes can provide.
“We can’t pay your rent for six months in a row,” Chapin says.
She is also seeing a new group in need of help — some of the nonprofit’s donors have become clients.
“You just don’t know how close somebody is from being minutes away from getting a bill in the mail that they can’t pay, from being minutes away from losing their job and then not being able to provide for their family,” Chapin says. “Because right now so many more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.”
She does not see an escape for the flood of tenants facing eviction. “I absolutely think that it’s inevitable, and we’re starting to see it. We are seeing it with the increased rental requests that we’re getting right now,” she says.
Housing advocates are adamant that it’s not too late to prevent the eviction crisis from exploding, but only if a second federal aid package is approved. The likelihood of that, however, is slim.
The House passed an extension of aid in May — the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act — but the Senate has yet to make a move on it four months later. Talks between Republicans and Democrats have stalled, and the president’s executive orders are mostly symbolic and do not provide immediate relief.
“For this chapter right now, I’m surviving,” Jody Raye says, adding he never received federal assistance. All of his financial support came through Tri-Lakes Cares. And as grateful as he is for the help, he doesn’t feel like he can ask for more.
Jody Raye also says he doesn’t see his job as a music teacher returning anytime soon. He wants to work, needs to, but doesn’t know when he’ll be able to find a job. Without insurance, he pays for his chronic medical issues out of pocket. A recent back epidural cost him almost $500.
He can no longer afford to travel to see his two granddaughters play softball, and he doesn’t have funds to cover necessities like prescription medications for high blood pressure.
“I’m starting to feel my hope being carved out a little bit,” Jody Raye says, adding that he has no idea how he’s going to pay next month’s rent. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’ You know, I don’t know what the future holds. And it’s weird to lose hope.”