Colorado Democrats, housing advocates weigh a mixed “year of housing”
As the final weekend of the 2023 legislative session began in early May, two major housing bills remained in limbo.
The measures represented two different approaches to addressing the state’s intertwined housing affordability and availability crises. One, just-cause evictions, was the most significant in a suite of progressive bills that sought to protect renters and realign their relationship with landlords. The other, a sweeping land-use reform backed by Gov. Jared Polis, was a supply-side solution to build smarter, faster and more densely.
Both had split the historically large Democratic majorities in the Capitol. Both had broad coalitions behind them. Both were hung up in the state Senate. And by session’s end at midnight on May 8, both were dead.
The two bills were far from the only housing bills contemplated by Colorado lawmakers this year. But their late demise meant that a legislative session billed as the “year of housing” ended without the sort of transformative legislation that advocates, lawmakers and Polis had sought. That two bills representing different approaches to the crisis suffered the same fate revealed the depth of disagreement, and lack of a coherent path forward, among lawmakers grappling with the state’s housing crisis.
“At the beginning of the legislative session, the governor said, ‘housing, housing, housing,’” said Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat and eviction defense attorney. (In his State of the State address in January, Polis mentioned the word “housing” more than three dozen times.) “Everybody heard about housing from their constituents. The state is 40% renters. And we simply didn’t make renters a priority.”
More than two dozen measures with direct ties to housing were contemplated by lawmakers. Many passed. If and when they’re signed into law, those bills will provide more protections to low-income renters; cut pet and application fees; and bolster housing development. One will study corporate ownership of housing. Another regulates water quality at mobile home parks.
Still, several progressive advocates and lawmakers told The Denver Post, the legislature didn’t do enough to address the rising cost of rent (landlords and Republicans agreed, albeit by arguing that lawmakers had done too much and would in turn hurt the market). Several contrasted Democrats’ quick and largely unified work to pass property tax relief — a bill was introduced, repeatedly amended and then passed in a matter of days — with the more divided and hesitant approach to confront rental costs, which have doubled in Denver alone over the past 12 years.
“I think the biggest thing that we heard from constituents was affordability,” said Rep. Iman Jodeh, an Aurora Democrat who co-sponsored the land-use bill in the House. “And I don’t feel like we passed enough legislation to specifically address that.”
Despite the frustration — some of which they share — Jodeh and other Democratic lawmakers said the legislature had taken meaningful action to help renters this year.
Jodeh, for instance, helped to pass a bill that will allow thousands of primarily low-income Coloradans to virtually participate in eviction proceedings. Democratic Sen. Faith Winter co-sponsored several bills to help tenants: SB23-184 caps the rent-to-income ratio, which’ll help more lower-income renters get housed. HB23-1190 sets up a first-of-its-kind program that gives local governments a right of first refusal on certain, for-sale housing developments. HB23-1120 extends more protections for renters on government assistance.
“Anything that is as monumental as this takes time and numerous solutions and numerous people,” Winter said. “We haven’t solved the climate emergency, and yet we bring bills every year. We weren’t set out to solve the housing crisis in one year. We took the steps that we could, and we have to come back next year to really look at affordability and inventory and how that changes.”
After the just-cause bill died on the calendar in the Senate, Senate President Steve Fenberg said the legislature was addressing housing and had doled out tens of millions in funding last year. Polis told reporters after the session ended that important bills had passed but that more work — particularly around housing supply — was needed.
The core issue of affordability, though, remains unresolved, and lawmakers — particularly in the House — argue that transformative policy is needed, given the scale of both the problem and Democrats’ majorities in the Capitol. Mabrey’s bill to let local governments cap rent increases died in the Senate, a couple of weeks before, just cause and land use collapsed. Even land use — Polis’ housing darling this year — did not represent quick relief: The density and growth it sought to incentivize would’ve taken years to bear fruit, and many advocates were leery of its potential to displace low-income tenants.
For Republicans and landlords, the progressive housing bills’ defeats and dilutions were welcome reprieves. While some Democrats and the advocates with whom they work have vented frustration at how little was accomplished, opponents say the bills that were passed will hurt housing affordability by putting new restrictions on landlords and tightening supply.
“From 30,000 feet, one of the risks you have is you can focus on some of the reasonableness of the requirements without pausing to think about the magnitude of the requirements,” said Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of the Colorado Apartment Association. “I do think it’s getting to the point where nonprofessional landlords — someone who just wants to rent their bungalow in Washington Park — that it’s so complex that you’re likely to say, ‘You know what, I can’t do this. I’m not a real estate attorney, I’m just somebody with a house.’”
Hamrick said there were so many housing bills this year that he had to prioritize a handful to defeat. He focused, he said, on rent control; just cause; and the right-of-first-refusal bills. The Senate killed the first two and heavily amended the third.
The Senate was a frustration for progressive Democrats all year. A swing vote on the housing committee in that chamber, Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts, previously told the Post he was skeptical of rent control and just cause protections but that he didn’t relish his opposing role.
Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the just cause bill, told fellow House Democrats on May 8 that the House had passed progressive policies, only to be stymied by the Senate.
“We said we did things for renters, we did things to help keep people housed. We did not,” she said, during a tense caucus meeting on the session’s last night. “I don’t see that we did it.”
Peter LiFari, who runs the Adams County housing authority Maiker Housing Partners, said the lack of progress on affordability this year is because the legislature has yet to fully prioritize renters as a distinct group.
“For me, until we start to incentivize behaviors that dignify renting and provide a renter’s equity platform — and this isn’t just renters’ rights in my opinion, this is like their position as Americans, their value, their worth as us — we’re going to struggle in this regard,” he said.
He pointed to the swift introduction and passage of SB23-303, Democrats’ plan to stave off property tax hikes. The proposal, which now needs voter approval come November, seeks to insulate property owners from the sort of price increases that renters regularly weather.
Some lawmakers — including House Speaker Julie McCluskie — say property tax relief may help renters because landlords can pass off savings to their tenants. Advocates weren’t so sure.
“I’m just going to have to say, based on what data? On all the other times that property management companies have passed on savings to renters?” said Cathy Alderman, the chief communications and public policy officer for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “That argument would make so much more sense if you were saying we’re putting reasonable rent stabilization measures in place but also giving property owners this tax relief.”
Winter said the legislature had less control over rents than it did property taxes. Still, she said SB23-303 “favored a certain type of taxpayer over another.”
There was enough criticism of the property tax bill that, with three days left in the session, Democratic lawmakers introduced a companion bill to flatten TABOR checks. That’ll primarily help lower-income Coloradans, but only if voters pass the ballot measure that’ll enact the property tax changes.
Lawmakers also amended the property tax bill to devote millions to rental aid, which has been running dry as evictions climb to five-year highs statewide. One House Democrat said the rental aid and TABOR changes were likely the biggest housing wins of the year.
Housing has its moment
Regardless of how you grade legislators’ housing work this year, what is certain is that it’s an enduring issue. In 2022, the legislature doled out tens of millions worth of federal stimulus dollars for housing programs. Voters then passed Proposition 123, which will devote hundreds of millions more annually. This year, the first bill introduced in the Senate was about housing, and the land-use bill died four months later, as the clock wound down.
Those trends represent a shift in the political appetite to tackle housing, both now and into the future, officials said. That’s in part thanks to the pandemic, which required government intervention to stave off mass evictions, and in part because the affordability crisis has become too large to ignore. A recent survey showed that rent strained the finances of many young voters across the state, and Colorado needs to build tens of thousands of housing units.
“The conversation now versus five years ago, trying to get people to listen and invest in and care about some of these housing issues was just like — it didn’t exist,” said Melissa Mejia, the state and local policy director for the Community Economic Defense Project. ” … That truly changed with the pandemic. But what that also means is, yes there’s this huge opportunity, yes there’s this appetite to start to address this now, and that’s great, and we need to figure out what to do with that. But also we’re trying to make up for a ton of time that this was totally ignored.”
To adjust to that new reality, several advocates and lawmakers said, the burgeoning affordable housing lobby needs to organize. Some likened the path forward to how the environmental, reproductive health and gun-reform groups have coalesced around set legislative packages.
“Frankly, I’m not sure we saw the level of coordination among housing bills (introduced this year) so that they would leverage each other and make a lot of sense together,” Alderman said. The land use bill would’ve facilitated that, she continued: It included a provision to stand up a legislative oversight committee focused on housing and homelessness. Alderman and others say they hope that idea will return next year.
Still, others said uniformity will be hard to come by, given the immense complexity of housing and the varying solutions championed even among Democrats. Every legislator gets to introduce five bills, and some keep them private. Housing bills with big coalitions — land use and just cause, for instance — still failed. The problem, Mejia said, is political — meaning within the Democratic Party’s legislative majorities. Solving that will require grassroots organizing, she and others said.
It’s unclear if uniformity is even possible, given fundamental disagreements about the source of the problem and what solutions should be pursued.
“A lot of renters’ proponents do not believe that … more supply equates to greater affordability,” LiFari said. That was the core of supporters’ argument for land use reform: Build more and rents will drop. But concerns among some lawmakers led to specific anti-gentrification strategies being folded into the bill.
Solving that “fundamental disagreement,” LiFari continued, would require a “significant amount of coalescing” in the coming months.
The land-use debate is certain to return next year. So, too, is just cause and other pro-tenant bills. Housing advocates said they planned to organize renters and the community to push moderate Democrats. Republicans and landlords urged the legislature to slow down and build bipartisan coalitions.
The “year of housing” will not be confined to one year.
“For folks who have been doing the work for a long time, in years past it was really difficult to get anybody to pay attention to or talk about affordable housing. The state of Colorado didn’t have much money to invest in affordable housing,” said Kinsey Hasstedt, the state and local policy director for Enterprise Community Partners. “Now we’re in different place. It’s become a — if not the — key campaign issue. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
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