By: Christie McElhinney, Close To Home
Is Denver a city for rich people?
Denverite editor Dave Burdick posed this question to panelists to kick off last week’s Denverite On Topic community forum on Rent and Renters’ Issues, which was supported by Close To Home.
“Denver isn’t yet a city only for the rich,” said panelist Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech, “but we’re headed in that direction and it’s going to take a lot of work to change course.”
A new study backs this up, calling housing unaffordability the most significant threat to family economic security in Colorado. Exploring Colorado’s Housing Affordability Challenges in All of Their Complexity reports that half of renter households across the state spend more than one-third of their income on housing, which means they’re cutting corners on food, health care, child care, transportation and other basics.
The high demand and low availability of housing also leads to some appalling experiences, like that of panelist Rhianna Brown. To secure an apartment in Aurora, she said, she and her partner were required to provide a $200 non-refundable “holding” fee. This was then bumped up to $250, and it didn’t work. The apartment manager told them the unit they were holding had been rented out and the only other available apartment was $200 more per month – take it or leave it. With no other options, they took the apartment.
Rhianna said they quickly encountered serious problems – the doors didn’t lock, the windows wouldn’t shut completely or lock, their stove caught on fire, there was mold, and the water was filthy, filled with dirt and grit. She spoke personally with the manager, sent emails and made calls asking for repairs. Nothing happened until she involved the city. The stove was then replaced and locks fixed, but the apartment owners refused to address the mold or water problems, which were especially concerning to Rhianna who is pregnant.
With the city on her side, Rhianna finally drew the line and withheld payment of rent to push for the problems to be fixed. The apartment owners refused payment from the city and evicted them for non-payment.
Rhianna’s experience is not unique, said panelist Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, lead housing organizer of 9to5 Colorado. Colorado is the only state in the country that has that a habitability statute that presumes landlords took actions in good faith. To fight this, she said, Rhianna would have needed an attorney to prove retaliation; only 3% of tenants facing eviction in Denver have legal representation.
Panelist Rocky Sundling of the Colorado Apartment Association noted that many eviction proceedings are resolved. In such a tight market, though, Andrea countered, renters have become “disposable and expendable. Landlords don’t really need a reason to evict you.” A lot of renters don’t complain even when conditions are deplorable, she said, because they fear eviction.
Rhianna and her partner are now homeless, staying temporarily in a motel and trying to figure out how to secure a safe, affordable home before their child is born.
Few suggestions were offered for families amid crisis situations, though the information was shared on efforts underway and being considered. The City of Denver is taking modest steps to make pro bono legal representation more readily available to tenants facing eviction. Growing the City of Boulder’s requirement for landlords to be licensed to Denver and other communities was also suggested, as was requiring landlords to accept vouchers and other forms of payment, completing planning and taking meaningful actions to comply with the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to support desegregation, and more.
Crucial to achieving change, panelists said, was for residents to speak up and take actions that support more affordable housing and prevent homelessness.
Councilwoman Kniech said she hears regularly from residents who are unhappy with increasing rents and housing costs, but folks complain even louder over proposed low-income housing in their neighborhood. “We need people to attend neighborhood meetings and speak up in support of more affordable housing. Our communities are not uniting around actual housing.”
You can watch the recorded Facebook Live Stream of Denverite On Topic: Rent and Renters’ Issues below to learn more.
On Tuesday, March 20, In partnership with Denverite, Denver Foundation program Close To Home Colorado coordinated a panel discussion at Curious Theatre Company to talk about rent and renters' issues in the Denver metro area with special guests who helped the audience understand the issues from unique perspectives. See below for a recorded Facebook Live Stream of the panel discussion.
Featured on the panel:
Robin Kniech, Denver Councilwoman At-large
Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, lead housing organizer of 9to5 Colorado
Rocky Sundling, president of the Colorado Apartment Association
Rhianna Brown, who shared her story of being evicted from her apartment earlier this month