Why Undocumented Coloradans Are Excluded From Rent Assistance

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Undocumented immigrants aren't currently eligible for state rental assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 20, Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order allocating $3 million in state funds to be used for short-term rental and mortgage assistance for Coloradans struggling to stay housed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These funds are meant to provide emergency, short-term rental and mortgage assistance to households that are most vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure due to the likelihood that they have little savings and that they will receive a low amount or no unemployment benefits," according to guidelines for the assistance fund.

Further on in those guidelines, a section notes that applicants must verify that they're legal residents of the United States. In other words, undocumented immigrants, who already cannot access unemployment benefits, need not apply for rental assistance, either. This section cites a Colorado law passed in 2006 that requires verification of lawful residency before the state can dole out certain public benefits.

But there's considerable debate over that provision, and lawyers at the state Attorney General's Office are currently analyzing where it can, and should, be removed.

The 2006 law has an exemption for "short-term, noncash, in-kind emergency disaster relief," which exactly describes the type of help coming from the rental-assistance fund, according to Allison Neswood, an attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

"Short-term emergency rental assistance fits squarely within that exception and should be available without regard to immigration status," Neswood recently wrote in an email to the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

While Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced that California would be offering up to $500 cash to undocumented individuals, the emergency rental-assistance relief in Colorado is non-cash, since the funds go directly to a landlord, rather than into the bank account of an applicant. That's why some Colorado lawmakers think undocumented residents should have access to the program.

"What you’re talking about is interpretation by different lawyers. We’re continuing to look into this and engage legal counsel to try to resolve the issue. I would say that there isn’t agreement on it," explains Alison George, the director of the state's Division of Housing in the Department of Local Affairs.

George points out that foundations and nonprofit organizations don't have the state requirement of verifying lawful residency for certain public benefits, and remain an option for undocumented residents.

"We’re really trying to figure out how we can best serve Coloradans. We are in conversations with foundations about whether they can actually fund that same rental and mortgage assistance, but through their programs that don’t have the same statutory requirements," George says. She notes that while the state would not provide money to foundations for this purpose, it could work with them to help earmark some funds.

In the meantime, nonprofit organizations like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition have been identifying potential non-governmental sources of economic relief for undocumented immigrants.

"We are working on figuring out the best avenues to get money to families as best as possible, and we’re coordinating with philanthropy," says Raquel Lane-Arellano, policy manager at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

But her organization and others have only so much capacity to handle application screenings and protect data of those seeking rental assistance. "The real answer to this is that government needs to fill this void. It’s not sustainable for nonprofit and philanthropy to fill this void for the most vulnerable," says Lane-Arellano.

On the local level, Denver's Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance Program has been receiving high numbers of applications for help with rent in recent weeks. The city doesn't require proof of legal residency for applicants since the money comes from the general fund, according to Loa Esquilin, a city spokesperson. Denver also contracts with nonprofit organizations to handle applications and dole out rental assistance, which is another reason that the city contends it doesn't need to ask about immigration status. (The Denver City Attorney's Office was not immediately available for comment.)

"For local programs, unless we’re required to ask for immigration status, we aren’t asking for immigration status," says Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who previously served as director of the city's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Torres believes that the state doesn't need to ask about immigration status for its rental-assistance fund, either, and that it's important for officials to revise those guidelines.

"The assistance for immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, is so much thinner than the rest of the general public," Torres notes, "because they’re not eligible for unemployment, they’re not eligible for the direct payment that the government just handed out."

Here are the state's rental assistance guidelines: