Giving Thought: Are we headed for a tidal wave of evictions?

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Jennifer Wherry is preparing for the worst but hopes nevertheless that the Aspen-to-Parachute region will avoid the legal and social disruption of mass evictions.

“If thousands of evictions happen over the next 6 to 12 months,” said the executive director of Glenwood Springs-based Alpine Legal Services, “then it’ll be more than our staff can handle, more than the courts can effectively process, more than law enforcement can safely manage, more than our systems can handle.”

Why is she concerned about an epidemic of evictions? Because the COVID-19 pandemic has put thousands of Coloradans out of work, and Wherry knows that individuals and families are having trouble paying their bills. Anticipating these problems months ago, both federal and state officials have protected vulnerable tenants with eviction moratoriums and 30-day notice requirements. But these safeguards, implemented in the spring, have now expired.

Accordingly, law enforcement and judges and lawyers anticipate a tidal wave of eviction filings, as landlords seek to fill their properties with gainfully employed, paying tenants.

“We haven’t seen the tsunami,” Wherry said, “but I do know we’re getting more calls every day from community members who are concerned they’re going to be evicted, or maybe they’ve received a notice.”

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has increased the number of households in the region that are under financial stress. Unemployment benefits have offset the pressure of furloughs and layoffs, but Aspen Community Foundation estimates that 17,000 people from Aspen to Parachute are currently without adequate income support.

Earlier this month, The Aspen Institute published a report that said 30 million to 40 million Americans are at risk for eviction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its myriad ripple effects, including at least 436,000 people in Colorado. Undocumented people, low-income renters and people of color tend to be the most vulnerable to eviction and other rent-related challenges. The report’s introductory sentence says, “the United States may be facing the most severe housing crisis in its history.”

Both tenants and landlords are at risk, according to the document. Many landlords are small property owners who will struggle to pay their own mortgages and property taxes because of rental payment arrears. This chain of unpaid debts is only one aspect of the overall problem; if, for example, numerous Roaring Fork Valley families are evicted from their rental housing, then finding new rental housing and new employment becomes even more difficult. If they have kids in school, then the problems and stressors multiply.

At the very least, an adult who’s feeling uncertain or anxious about his or her housing situation may not think clearly about other matters. Stress can manifest in all sorts of ways, both mental and physical, from substance abuse to domestic violence to heart attack and stroke.

So, given all of those potential negative outcomes, Wherry is trying to steer everyone toward a path of collaboration and compassion. She and others in local governments, nonprofits, courts and schools are promoting services such as mediation and conflict resolution to reduce the amount of community disruption.

“We’re disseminating information about various resources, and I hope it’s been effective enough that eviction will become a last resort,” she said.

The situation is changing daily, Wherry added, but she’s cautiously optimistic that the region can “avoid the community cost of mass evictions.” If landlords and tenants can work together in good faith, she said, then the valley can preserve and perhaps even strengthen its community fabric.

“If we can reduce the preventable pain of this situation, then it will pay off in ways we cannot calculate,” Wherry said.

That’s an approach I can support.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.