COVID-19 Debate: How Many in Colorado Actually Paid Rent?

COVID-19 Debate: How Many in Colorado Actually Paid Rent?
Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
As the economic challenges prompted by COVID-19 deepen, a collection of Colorado activists concerned about housing for those who've been laid off or fired is petitioning for a rent and mortgage freeze even as other groups are calling for rent strikes and noise-making protests. Meanwhile, Coloradans for the Common Good is attempting to convene a meeting of renters, lenders and landlords, even as the latter complain about being demonized when they're cash-strapped, too.

Against this backdrop, the Colorado Apartment Association, the largest organization of its type in the state, is touting a poll suggesting that over 80 percent of renters in the state paid their April rent on time — an estimate that a representative from the pro-petition Colorado Latino Forum criticizes from a wide variety of angles.

"They’re saying they want people’s money so they can help the community when there’s zero evidence that they’re helping the community," charges the CLF's Ean Thomas Tafoya. "They just want people to bleed cash."

CAA rejects such negative interpretations. Prior to April 1, the first major rent-due date to fall since stay-at-home orders for Denver and Colorado as a whole went into effect, the organization put out recommendations to landlords that they work with renters in financial distress.

CAA's advice:
• Create payment plans for residents unable to pay rent because of virus related loss of income
• Waive all late fees through April 30,2020
• Refrain from enforcing eviction orders with move-outs through April 30, 2020
• Avoid rent increases
• Share the Colorado Housing Financial Assistance Programs and Apartment Association of Metro Denver’s list of resources for renters
• Limit entry to rental properties to only emergency maintenance response
• Follow HIPAA federal rules for resident and employee privacy if a community has a positive test
• Increase common area cleaning with the approved list of cleaning supplies from the CDC
• Continue to follow the Governor’s mandate for reduced workplace staff and continue to follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing
• Maintain emergency maintenance needs for renters 
An additional renter's resource created by the CAA includes more than a dozen assistance programs for renters in distress, including information about rent forbearance, a temporary moratorium on eviction filings, payroll tax delays, loans available through the Paycheck Protection Program, and assorted efforts to help business operators who are struggling with COVID-19 fallout, too. Click for more details.

The association is now reporting that only 16.4 percent of Colorado renters were late on payments as of April 6, according to a poll of 44 housing organizations representing approximately 80,000 rental units across the state — a figure cheered by Mark Williams, CAA's executive vice president.

"Although this delinquency rate has increased, it is encouraging to learn that over 80% of Colorado residents who rent took personal responsibility to pay their monthly rent in the midst of the COVID-19 crises," Williams said in a statement. "Our organization understands that the economic impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding."

Renters lacking the ability to pay because of furloughs and other hardships are encouraged to reach out to landlords or building managers, who "are willing to work with residents impacted by COVID-19 to develop lease amendments for waived late fees, freeze rent increases, individual payment plans and options for early lease terminations," the association maintains. "Residents anticipating delays with May rent payments should start the conversation with their housing provider today to find resources to help them pay May rent or to reach an agreement with their housing provider before May arrives."

Williams adds: "We applaud all Colorado renters who paid April rent. These payments allow housing providers to cover mortgage costs, pay employees, compensate vendors, and maintain rental properties. Every resident’s contribution makes a difference and allows our resources to be used for the people in our communities who truly need help."

But Tafoya has a very different take. He questions the validity of the poll since "there are many landlords in Colorado who own small duplexes, 4-plexes and small apartment buildings that are not a part of this association." He wonders if the CAA is "cherry-picking data to drive the narrative," which he sees as "full of spin. It’s dishonest and in direct conflict with the national market data released in the Wall Street Journal."

That publication recently reported that "only 69 percent of tenants paid any of their rent between April 1 and 5, compared with 81 percent in the first week of March and 82 percent in April 2019," Tafoya points out. "How is it that this data is so different?"

As he sees it, "Folks may have been able to make rent using emergency savings, but millions in Colorado live paycheck to paycheck. The issue is going to only exacerbate, as what little savings people may have had are now gone into April's rent."

But Michelle Lyng, a Colorado Apartment Association spokesperson, offers an impassioned response to Tafoya's comments.

"Mr. Tafoya's assertion that there are no rental housing providers that own duplexes that belong to the Colorado Apartment Association is absolutely false," she says via email. "I know this because I am a member that owns a triplex and two single units in Denver. Further, there is a robust group within the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, a subsidiary of CAA, for independent housing providers — the very people Mr. Tafoya claims do not belong to the association. While it's true we don't represent every rental property in Colorado, we do represent those who manage and own properties with fewer than 250 units or fewer than ten units like me. Here's a link to the group."

Lyng maintains that "we are not cherry-picking data. We asked all of our members, including the smaller members, where they were in payments for the month. The rate of payment ranged from 93 percent to 40 percent. I think it's fair to say that properties that had a lot of people in the hospitality industry had a lower rate of payment. That shouldn't be a surprise given that many restaurants and tourism businesses have shut down during the pandemic."

In Lyng's view, the comparison of Colorado figures to national ones cited by the Wall Street Journal is an example of "comparing apples to oranges.... Generally, Colorado fares better than the national average for rent payments.

But she concludes on a conciliatory note: "Ultimately, Mr. Tafoya and the Colorado Apartment Association share the same concerns that there are residents out there that have been seriously impacted by the coronavirus and COVID-19 and need help, and the Colorado Apartment Association is willing to work with residents to get them the help they need."

Update: This post has been updated to include comments from Colorado Apartment Association spokesperson Michelle Lyng.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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