Protestors dressed as the Grim Reaper lined the sidewalk along Lincoln Avenue in front of the Colorado State Capitol building, May 26, 2020, protesting possible evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Evictions were a growing problem in Aurora before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy, forcing retail businesses to
temporarily close their doors, restaurants to offer takeout only
and thousands of Coloradans to seek inflated unemployment benefits.

An average of about eight evictions happened in Aurora each day before the pandemic came, putting the state’s third largest city at number 33 for evictions in the country, according to the Eviction Lab, hosted by Princeton University. Thornton makes the list’s top 50 at number 48 with an eviction rate of 4.6%.

“People work so hard. They work two jobs. They don’t see their kids,” Aurora Homeless Program Director Shelley McKittrick told the Sentinel in late 2018, as the city struggled with how to face its pre-pandemic eviction rate. “Many of us have struggled through parts of our lives. If I had come from multi-generational poverty, I probably would have been out on the street multiple times.”

The novel coronavirus has intensified the need for rental assistance in a community with surging rental prices, stagnant wages and a high rate of low-paying jobs.

Colorado as a whole faces a tsunami of evictions in the coming months, maybe as many as a half-million people losing their current housing, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.

Not only does losing their current housing put people at risk for becoming homeless, it makes finding a new place to rent much more difficult. Having an eviction record can follow a person for years. It’s a major reason why McKittrick has worked so hard to keep people in their homes.

Data compiled by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project show about 90,000 people in Adams and Arapahoe counties are at high risk of eviction.

Specifically in Aurora, about 55% of renters are considered cost-burdened, which is defined as paying more than a third of their income on housing.

“Aurora’s median rent is similar to the metropolitan area’s, yet, the city has fewer rentals below $1,000 and more above $1,000 than the region. Comparatively, in 2000 almost 60% of rentals in Aurora were priced lower than $750 per month,” according to a 2018 report. “Many renters in our city are being pushed out, becoming cost burdened, or are being forced to house together in order to stay in their homes.”

Avoiding all of those evictions will be grueling, and there just isn’t enough money to provide a safety net for everybody in need.

“It’s pretty intense for us all doing this work,” McKittrick said.

Paused for months by Gov. Jared Polis, evictions have already started up again and will likely continue to increase as summer turns to fall. Polis and others have extended sympathy to the situation but say that rentless apartments and homes only move the financial burden to another bank account.

Like in other counties, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office started carrying out eviction orders again last week. A spokeswoman for the department said 40 were scheduled to be carried out by the week’s end. On June 14, sheriff’s deputies executed eight evictions, Ginger Delgado, public information officer for the agency, said.

Of those, seven were in the same apartment complex.

Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

City Response

Residents not being able to make rent has largely become an issue cities and counties will have to deal with. In the final hours of this year’s state legislative session, a plan to extend an eviction moratorium through October fell through. Polis said he wouldn’t implement any more measures.

As a form of relief, Polis has asked municipalities via an executive order, to temporarily allow more unrelated people to live in a single family home to ease economic burden during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In theory, it would provide a more affordable option to renters and, possibly, help homeowners with an extra bedroom make their mortgage payment.

Two weeks ago, after a contentious debate on the Aurora City Council and hours of public comment, the request was scuttled by a vote that landed the mayor the decision maker. Opponents of the measure worried suburban neighborhoods would start to become more crowded with multiple families living in a house, crime would increase and parking would become an issue on mostly quiet streets. Critics say such a change could depress property values in tony neighborhoods. Proponents scoffed at the argument, saying the change would essentially be invisible to anyone outside a home with just a few more residents.

Mayor Mike Coffman said he voted down the measure to temporarily allow six unrelated people, instead of four, to occupy a home because Council Member Juan Marcano is already working on an ordinance that would permanently change the current rule.

It’s unclear so far what that rule change might look like in the future. Marcano said before the governor’s executive order he had put in a request with staff to look at the occupancy limit. It may show back up as an amendment to the unified development ordinance.

“It wasn’t so much that I was bringing it forward on my own in the future but that I would be championing that change,” Marcano said in an email.

He’s looking at other housing-related measures, too.

“Several of us have also requested staff research/put together plans for a landlord registry, conducting a vacancy study, and setting up vacancy fees for un-utilized residential and commercial property,” he said. “These are longer-term projects that won’t address the impending crisis but will hopefully have positive impacts when they are ready to be implemented.”

In the meantime, Aurora has been granting rental assistance to residents who have been impacted by the virus.

McKittrick said that during the last round of aid, the city received 1,300 applicants over one weekend.

About 400 people qualified for the federal funding, she said. For residents who don’t qualify for the federal funding, she said there are still avenues for getting rental assistance through the city’s own programs, which are largely funded by marijuana sales tax.

A saving grace of sorts, McKittrick said, is that the state is still requiring a 30-day eviction notice. Previously, residents only had 10 days to pack up and get out. That has bought residents and McKittrick some time. “That’s incredibly helpful for us to get aid to people,” she said.

The picture may look even more dire at the beginning of August, when evictions will likely start really rolling out, homelessness advocates say.

“I don’t see how it’s not going to be (dire),” she said. “Especially with the number of households that are rent burdened and working low-wage jobs.”

Tanisha Diggs and her husband Kwabena Yeboah stand in the courtyard of the Sanctuary at Heather Ridge where they live, July 18, 2020. The family, with two children, face an uncertain future with possible eviction.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

One Family’s Story

An eviction may have happened a lot quicker for Tanisha Diggs and her family had it not been for the pandemic. The virus and eviction moratorium has left them in limbo for weeks.

Diggs, who lives with her husband and two sons at the Sanctuary at Heather Ridge apartment complex in Aurora, first told her story to the Colorado Sun in mid-June.

Diggs is still fighting her eviction case. This week she’s appealing and praying she and her family will get to stay in the place they’ve lived since 2013. While the management company wouldn’t comment on the case specifically, Diggs said they’ve landed in court over a claim February rent wasn’t paid, despite having a receipt. Diggs also claims the apartment managers forged her and her husband’s signatures on a lease they declined to sign because the complex hadn’t addressed a cockroach infestation in 2017.

Since February, Diggs said they’ve tried paying their rent while the matter is handled in court, but the management company hasn’t accepted the payments. That’s also led the management company to tack on late fees, Diggs said.

Kwabena Yeboah, Diggs’ husband, works as a custodian at Swedish Medical Center. His hours have been cut in the wake of the pandemic. It’s been tough for the family, Diggs said. They only have one income.

Altogether, Diggs said fighting the eviction for this long has cost her family about $9,000. The family is afraid to lose its apartment, as imperfect as it is, in a school district that has been good for her kids.

“When we first moved in it was a little bit better. You know how it seems when you’re moving in and they tell you, you know, all these things that you’re excited to hear because you have a new space that you want to occupy. Like the manager told us all the walls are soundproof, your kids can be doing WWE and nobody would hear. That was a lie,” she said. “But nevertheless, I mean, we were excited because we wanted to keep our children in a district where they were attending school, which is the Cherry Creek School District. I have two special needs children. They, in my opinion, have received the best care by way of academic acknowledgement.”

Diggs describes her case as a classic David and Goliath story, except she’s not sure she’ll be victorious against the management company.

She’s not confident she’ll win her appeal. She doesn’t have a lawyer. The family has already started packing its belongings just in case.

“Right now we’re hanging in a balance of wondering if we’re going to be displaced and we know there is no place for us to go. We have no place to go,” she said. “That’s why we’re fighting so hard to be where we are. Because we have no place else to go.”