EDITORIAL: Averting pandemic homelessness in region, state must be a priority

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If you’re unnerved by what you’ve seen so far as the pandemic crisis rolls through the nation and Aurora, brace yourself for what’s next if no one acts: mass homelessness.

Experts in Aurora, the region and across the nation have repeatedly warned that a massive eviction crisis is looming. Thousands of homeless families across the metro area will make angst over pandemic business closures and face-mask regulations pale in comparison to the tragedy the region faces.

The numbers are staggering.

“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,” according to a July 23 Sentinel Colorado story. “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.”

In July, an astounding 25 million Americans told the Census Bureau they had no way to pay rent in August, the Associated Press reported.

Homelessness along the Front Range already affects everyone who lives here. Mass homelessness will create a debacle like no other.

Federal, state and local governments must all work to prevent mass evictions. Currently, Congress and the White House is a morass of partisan dysfunction. That’s the worst case scenario because only money can fix the problem of millions of Americans being unable to make rent or mortgage payments. State and city governments don’t have the monetary muscle needed to avert this impending disaster.

With so many jobs lost, unemployment benefits in doubt and near-certain future spikes in the spread of the virus, which will only make the business and jobs situation worse, all levels of government must act now.

Aurora has already fumbled an important way to help keep families in a home until the effects of the pandemic crisis abate. Last month, Gov. Jared Polis sensibly asked cities across the state, including Aurora, to temporarily modify limits on how many unrelated people can live in a house.

Currently, city ordinance says only four, unrelated people can live in the same home. Polis asked municipalities to boost that number.

City staff landed on a proposal to temporarily increase the limit from four to six. The change would allow those who lose their homes because of eviction to find roommates. It would allow homeowners facing foreclosure or their own eviction to temporarily rent rooms and keep their homes. The proposal was modest, but it was something.

What came next was disaster.

Councilman Dave Gruber inaccurately told constituents in an erroneous Facebook post in July that the change would allow six unrelated “families” to inhabit a home, rather than six individuals. The misinformation caused panic, among mostly high-end Aurora homeowners, who virtually stormed a city council meeting to oppose the measure.

Even for some who understand that the proposal would allow only two more unrelated individuals to become roommates, their opposition was loud and shortsighted in balking about a possible loss of property values.

There’s no evidence such a thing would happen, even if the increase in roommate limits were made permanent.

There is, however, very real and historical proof right here in Aurora that massive numbers of evictions and foreclosures will push the market price of real estate down deeply. Thousands of Aurora residents became upside down on their mortgages virtually overnight in the 1980s oil bust in Colorado. Incremental foreclosures caused by the Great Recession depressed property values for years.

A flood of evictions and home ejections would be catastrophic not just for property values, but because it would also create a humanitarian calamity in Aurora and across the Front Range.

Landlords would lose billions in revenue because they would force non-paying renters out, and there would be practically no one to fill their places. Foreclosed homes would sit vacant for months or years, dragging property values down across huge swaths of Aurora and the rest of the metro area.

Federal, state and local governments must act to keep families in their current homes by ensuring money is available and transmitted to landlords and mortgage holders.

Congress can help do this by first working to shore up businesses, to keep people employed and able to pay for housing. Congress and state governments can also avoid this disaster by creating ways to directly move rent and mortgage payments to landlords and banks.

City and county governments must make pools of money available to residents who fall through the cracks of state and federal programs, including those who are unable to qualify for aid because of immigration status.

And the very least counties and cities, like Aurora, can do is to temporarily boost limits on roommates in an effort to keep people in homes.

The grim reality we’ve come to know under this pandemic will become nightmarish if thousands, or tens of thousands, of families in the region are turned out onto the streets to live in cars and tents.

The warnings of state, local and national experts are not hyperbole. Great Depression and Dust Bowl survivors can attest to the fact that such a debacle can, and did, happen right here in the Colorado West.

Every elected official must make preventing such a cataclysmic humanitarian crisis an immediate priority.