Housing

New Laws Lead to Longer Leases, Including One From State's Top Eviction Firm

Tenants in the Chateau Apartments were surprised by new leases.
Tenants in the Chateau Apartments were surprised by new leases. Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons
Cynthia Swanson has lived in the Chateau Apartments in Capitol Hill since 2002. During that time, she’s signed annual renewals of her lease that were always relatively simple. That changed this year: In April, she received a new lease document that was five times as long as any contract she’d signed before.

At the end of the thirty-plus-page document was this note: "This form has not been approved by the Colorado Real Estate Commission. It was prepared by…legal counsel Tschetter Sulzer, PC.”

Swanson started doing some research and found that Tschetter Sulzer, which bills itself as the top eviction law firm in Colorado, is currently facing a class-action lawsuit charging that it uses deceptive practices in eviction procedures. Already concerned about signing such a complicated document, she became even more worried after that discovery.

Judson Brown, projects manager for Alden Brown & Company, the property management company that owns the Chateau Apartments as well as fifteen other properties primarily in the Capitol Hill area, says that Tschetter Sulzer has been the company law firm for decades, reviewing previous leases even though it didn’t prepare them. As he sees it, the firm's top eviction status is a result of the type of law it practices.

“I hate to say it, but that's sort of the primary realm that a landlord attorney is going to deal in: eviction,” he says. “An attorney who primarily represents the landlord, it's going to be related to evictions. If you look up landlord attorneys who represent tenants, it's going to be evictions as well; it's just going to be on the other side of the coin.”

Tschetter Sulzer did not respond to a request for comment.

This year, the firm's involvement with the company intensified because two bills passed in the 2021 legislative session prompted Alden Brown & Company to create an entirely new lease document, Brown says.

The first bill was Rights in Residential Lease Agreements, which changed some common practices of landlords — including reducing the penalty for a late-rent fee to a maximum of $50 and requiring a seven-day grace period before rent is considered late.

In Alden Brown & Company leases, late fees used to be $75 and rent was considered late on the fifth of the month; now the fees are $50 and rent is considered late on the eighth. The new lease also doesn’t include a liquidated-damage clause, which Rights in Residential Lease Agreements prohibited. According to Brown, under Alden Brown's liquidated-damage clause, if an individual broke a lease, that person would be released from obligations by paying an amount equal to a month and a half of rent. Now an individual is required to pay full rent until the apartment is re-rented.

“Sometimes that benefits the tenant, because in a market like it is right now, we can usually rent a unit really quickly,” Brown says. “But if the market’s slow and it takes two or two and a half months to rent a unit, that doesn't really help the tenant.”

The second 2021 bill, Residential Tenancy Procedures, added so many extra stipulations that Brown used the law firm to overhaul the previous lease. “It got longer largely due to the language that attorneys use versus myself or my dad writing our leases,” he says.

Landlords in Denver are now also required to attach the Denver Tenant Rights and Resources to all leases, thanks to a Denver City Council ordinance; that added several more pages to the document.

“If a lease contains the language that it is not a Commission-approved form, that would signal to me that it is a lease that a real estate broker had prepared by an attorney for the real estate broker's use,” says Marcia Waters, director of the Colorado Division of Real Estate. “Real estate brokers are not allowed to draft their own contract documents, which include leases, and must have an attorney draft them if there isn't a commission-approved form available.”

The Colorado Real Estate Commission is a five-member board housed under the Colorado Division of Real Estate. The commission doesn't have a standard form because it doesn't have jurisdiction over many elements of property management, including security deposit disputes, repairs not being made to a rental property or the eviction process, according to Waters.

Rather, the commission is responsible for the conduct of real estate brokers, ensuring that real estate professionals meet licensing requirements and continue to follow the law once licensed. As for property management, it primarily takes up complaints regarding the management of consumer funds and accounting requirements.

The division implemented new procedures regarding attorney-prepared leases in 2018 because it had gotten so many complaints about leases; when officials asked brokers where they got their leases, they either wouldn't know or would obfuscate. Although brokers aren’t allowed to write leases, Waters says that some brokers would simply write them anyway and say that an attorney had done it . Now division rules require that each lease prepared by an attorney include a note about the attorney who prepared it — because there are no commission-approved leases.

Once Alden Brown got the new lease from the attorneys with all the changes and the appropriate disclaimers, the company sent it to every resident. Brown says that long-term residents such as Swanson were surprised, because they haven't signed a full lease in years; instead, they've signed a change of terms paper, which is usually only a page long and discusses changes in rent or other minor modifications.

Swanson says she appreciates that the new legislation requires that the lease spell out details, though she wishes it weren’t so complicated. “All this other stuff, it’s like they're telling me how to live my life,” she adds, suggesting that that stuff is designed to protect the company from problem renters.

“An attorney who's drafting this lease for us, the landlord, is going to try to make it as — I don't want to use the phrase 'beneficial to the landlord' as they can, but within the construct of the law, that’s sort of their goal,” Brown acknowledges. “It's part of the legislature's goal to give the tenants equal rights to the landlord, which is why it's gotten longer and more complicated than it used to be.”

Swanson still hasn’t signed her new lease. She’s not sure if she should. She says she’s had various maintenance issues over the years, including contaminated water leaking into her apartment, and worries this lease will make it harder for her to get the fixes she needs. But she doesn’t want to move, either.

Brown says he’s happy to sit down with tenants to go over the lease.

“Part of my message to them would be a lot of this language we were required to add, which might help ease their mind a little bit, and a good portion of the language actually does benefit them in several ways,” he says. “That might not seem obvious at first, but if you dig into the details, it's a little more apparent.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire