Amid soaring rents, thousands face evictions in Colorado
By JASON POHL
Aug. 05, 2017
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — The deputy's knock and booming words, "sheriff's office," echo down the stairwell, though nobody answers.
Deputies draw their weapons and enter a woman's home at Fossil Creek Condos, an upscale complex in southeast Fort Collins. She hasn't paid rent for three months on her unit that overlooks the pool. She no-showed for eviction court.
This morning is the last resort.
Cpl. Perry Malisani and Deputy Barb Bowman with the Larimer County Sheriff's Office check room by room for any occupants inside the cluttered condo — in the past Bowman has been threatened by a knife-wielding tenant, and both have stories over the years about scrapping with angry occupants. Hence the precautions.
Dirty dishes fill the sink, and a haze of fruit flies has taken over the kitchen, but nobody appears to be home.
Then deputies open the bathroom door.
A man and woman sit naked in a bathtub, staring up at law enforcement, a blank expression on their faces, as if to say they know the time has finally come to leave. Malisani gives them five minutes to get dressed and get out, and the landlord decides against pursuing trespass charges — this time.
It's eviction day.
Deputies just call it "Thursday."
As wages stagnate and rents soar, more than 37,000 evictions were filed statewide in either county or district court last year, according to data compiled by the Colorado Judicial Branch and analyzed by the Coloradoan. Those records exclude Denver County court, which is administered aside from state courts and saw more than 8,000 evictions.
Though the total and coinciding per capita rates have trended steadily downward from 51,000 at the height of the Great Recession, data still show there are roughly 700 evictions filed with courts every week across Colorado — almost 100 per day. For those who don't follow a judge's order to vacate, it falls on the local sheriff's office to facilitate the takeover of the residence.
"Everybody suffers," Malisani said as movers heaved a couch through a doorway en route to a parking lot and another man tinkered with locks that needed changing. "It doesn't matter who it is."
Considered by many to only be a problem for "other" people, evictions are far-reaching, even in times of economic prosperity, experts say.
Larimer County saw 1,300 evictions, known in legalese as forcible entry and detainer cases, in fiscal year 2016, spanning July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. That's down from about 1,800 in fiscal year 2009 but still translates to 25 a week.
Malisani, who oversees Larimer County's eviction standbys, said they respond to about 10 a week. While many include belligerent or substance-addicted tenants who have destroyed a home, many more hinge on renters whose wages are simply outpaced by rents.
"Then you gotta walk the little kids out to the car, the curb, and it's hard to explain to them what's going on," Malisani said. "It breaks your heart to see these kids. It's not their fault. And sometimes it's not the parents' fault.
"But sometimes it is."
Special law enforcement units across the country are assigned to handle evictions, landlords retain a range of resources to handle troubled tenants, and courts continually become clogged with cases all but guaranteed to stay on a renter's records — scars that will affect their housing options for years to come.
Jennifer Walters is the manager for the second-floor condo subject to Thursday morning's eviction. A renter herself, she said she sympathizes with tenants who are struggling to keep up with sky-high costs of living in Fort Collins.
Monthly rent was set at $1,195 for the unit — about average by Fort Collins standards. Walters knew the woman through a previous rental experience, but she stopped paying rent in May and was a no-show for a court appearance.
That set the wheels in motion for law enforcement.
It's unclear whether the downward trend in evictions will persist, even as rents soar in some places and continue to outpace income. Though the newly released Prosperity Now Scorecard ranks Colorado sixth most desirable in terms of financial health, the state drops to 24th in terms of homeownership and housing.
"The housing market in Colorado is incredibly tight. You couple that with the fact that wages have been so flat for so long, people's household budgets are just really strained," said Claire Levy, executive director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a Denver-based advocacy group that researches and makes policy recommendations on topics ranging from health care access to economic security.
"There's no margin for error."
The group released a comprehensive report earlier this month, "Facing Eviction Alone," examining Denver eviction data spanning several years. Among other things, researchers found that tenants going through formal eviction proceedings were represented by an attorney only about 3 percent of the time — property owners had lawyers in every case. Those who had legal representation were significantly more likely to prevail in court.
Authors also said the median amount in dispute was about $200.
"Anybody can find themselves in this situation. All it takes is having your car break down, having a kid sick that causes you to miss a couple of days of work and you could find yourself in a situation of not being able to afford your rent and wind up evicted," Levy said. "It's not good for this state as a whole. It's not just other people. It's not good for this state when we can't house the people who live here."
Levy said she hopes the report spurs discussion about funds to defend indigent tenants' legal cases and expand the availability of emergency rental assistance, similar to other rallying cries that made headlines last year.
After the publication of "Evicted" by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, conversations went a bit more mainstream about the process and the sparse data tracking evictions. The Milwaukee-based ethnographer won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and has been praised for examining the downward spiral brought on by evictions, simultaneously calling attention to the sheer magnitude of evictions in cities big and small across the U.S.
Desmond's work renewed conversations about voucher programs and legal aid to those experiencing evictions, not unlike the report commissioned in Denver. Plus, experts say, there needs to be a continued push for more affordable rental properties to help keep runaway rents in check.
With more than 5,200 market-rate, student-oriented, income- or age-restricted apartments and townhomes in the development pipeline, some relief might be in sight.
It remains to be seen just how much.
"We need more housing that people can afford, and we also need to help people pay for the housing that already exists. Maybe that's housing vouchers. Maybe it's jobs that pay more," Levy said. "You've got to close that affordability gap."
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com