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Colorado lawmakers vote to require mediation before eviction for tenants on government aid

Colorado lawmakers vote to require mediation before eviction for tenants on government aid

An effort to require mediation between landlords and tenants before landlords can file for eviction, if the tenant receives certain financial assistance, passed its last major legislative hurdle on Saturday.

Under House Bill 1120, mediation would involve a landlord and tenant meeting together with a neutral third party to discuss a voluntary settlement in lieu of an eviction. If an eviction is ordered, the bill would give tenants 30 days to leave the property, instead of the current 10 days.

The Senate passed the bill on Saturday, following the House’s passage last month. The House next must approve changes made by the Senate. Then, the bill will go Gov. Jared Polis for final approval.

“These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” said bill sponsor Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster. “We’re protecting the public investment into their housing, we’re protecting the most vulnerable of families and we’re protecting the disability community.”

Around 38,560 evictions occur in Colorado each year, according to state estimates. Under the bill, approximately 2,912 of the people facing eviction annually would be eligible for these new protections.

The eviction protections would apply to tenants who receive Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The bill would not apply to tenants of landlords who have fewer than five single-family homes or fewer than five total units.

Senators passed the bill in a 20-14 vote on Saturday. The House voted 44-20. Across both chambers, all Republicans voted against the bill and all but three Democrats voted in support of it: Rep. Shannon Bird of Westminster, Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Sen. Joann Ginal of Fort Collins.

Critics of the bill argued that it would make the eviction process too long and dis-incentivize landlords and developers from investing in Colorado’s rental industry, ultimately resulting in less rental housing available for tenants.

“There won’t be any housing stock at some point if there isn’t a reasonable, reasonably timed, reasonably priced method of keeping that which is yours,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. “I’m very concerned and believe that it will have an even more damaging effect on a larger group of people.”

The bill adds to a slew of other legislation this session aiming to protect and lower costs for renters by cracking down on the actions of landlords.

Some of those bills seek to prohibit evictions without just cause, cap fees for owning pets and limit income requirements and security deposits. The latter two bills have already passed the legislature and are awaiting approval from the governor to become law.

“It adds to a significant burden, collectively,” said Ginal, one of the three Democrats opposed to HB 1120. “I don’t think it’s going to help in affordability, I don’t think it’s going to help renters, it’s definitely not going to help landlords.”

Proponents of the bill said mediation in eviction conflicts can often lead to the landlord agreeing to let the tenant stay, with solutions including setting up a payment plan, exchanging services, or forgiving late fees. In these cases, landlords could end up saving time and money that would have been spent on court proceedings, they said.

If landlords still want the tenant to leave, mediation can result in the landlord and tenant agreeing on a voluntary move-out date without filing for eviction and hurting the tenant’s rental record.

Under the bill, the mediation would need to be scheduled within two weeks of the eviction notice, when possible. Tenants would have to be informed of their right to mediation by the landlord in the eviction notice and tenants would not be responsible for the costs of mediation.

“We’re trying to create an opportunity for resolution to take place,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. “It’s not intended to be a burden on landlords. It’s intended for us as a state to be good samaritans for people who are struggling.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder, added that there is “a wide disparity in access to legal representation between landlords and people experiencing eviction.”

A review of Denver eviction cases from 2014 to 2016 found that, while landlords had legal representation in every case reviewed, tenants were only represented by an attorney in 1% to 3% of the cases. Nationally, landlords have legal representation in around 82% of eviction cases, compared to 3% for tenants, according to the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

Under the bill, the 20-day extension for qualifying tenants to leave the property could also be voided, but only in cases of “substantial” lease violations.

Bill sponsor Rep. David Ortiz, D-Centennial, said extending the time before tenants are forced out of their rental home is essential, arguing that the current 10-day time limit does not give them enough time to find new housing. This is especially true for tenants with disabilities, he said.

“People with disabilities are twice as likely as their able-bodied counterparts to be impoverished,” Ortiz said. “It’s essential that we protect our most vulnerable communities that might not have the financial or legal resources to fight against the eviction process, especially in the middle of our housing crisis.”

Only 5% of newly constructed multifamily housing units are required to be accessible to people with disabilities, based on federal standards. A 2011 study found that less than 5% of housing in the U.S. is accessible for people with moderate mobility difficulties and less than 1% is accessible for wheelchair users. The bill’s protections would apply to recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance.

This bill comes as evictions in some Colorado cities have surpassed pre-pandemic levels. In March this year, 1,195 tenants faced eviction in Denver courts, compared to 708 in the same month in 2019, Denverite reported.

During a public hearing on the bill, Samantha Hudson said she and her two daughters were living on just $400 a month from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to keep up with her rent and facing threats of eviction, Hudson moved out of her home and onto the streets.

Hudson said her family was forced to live in a car and a tent, as her mental health plummeted and she eventually turned to drug use to cope. Hudson lost custody of her daughters soon after.

“If I would have had a chance for mediation and a lawyer, I would have had a good chance of keeping my place, my belongings and my girls,” Hudson said while testifying in support of the bill. “If this bill gets passed, it will help out so many people in need.”

Read the complete article here.

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