COLORADO SPRINGS — John Wilson sat in the middle of the courtroom alone, wearing a black cloth tied over his lower face like a bandana. Beside him in the pew was a satchel with a stack of loose documents that represented his doomed eviction defense.
This was G&S Investors' — the company that owns the building that Wilson, his wife and two granddaughters live in — second attempt to evict him. They'd tried first in September, alleging that Wilson owed $342 in rent from July. But thanks to an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wilson wasn't evicted: He hadn't paid all of his rent because he'd lost his job as a cook at KFC in mid-March, and if he were to be evicted, he and his family had nowhere else to go. That was enough to qualify them for protection.
But this time, Wilson's landlord asked El Paso County Magistrate Judge Andrea Paprzycki to evict Wilson because his lease had expired May 31, four and a half months earlier. In his defense filed before the court hearing Tuesday, Wilson wrote that the landlord shouldn't get "a second bite at the apple." They'd failed by trying to oust him for unpaid rent; why should they get to try again with a new reason?
The order from the CDC created a tidal wave of confusion, attorneys and experts say. It applied only to those tenants who were going to get evicted because they couldn't pay rent because of the pandemic. What's more, there wasn't clear guidance as to how it should be applied.
Different courts across Colorado began interpreting the order differently, meaning tenants in Denver and Tenants in Colorado Springs were met with completely different justice systems. Some, like Denver County Courts, started dismissing those cases outright. Others, like Paprzycki, allowed the process to play out but stopped short of actually removing tenants.
The morning of Wilson's hearing, Paprzycki was running behind. She'd scheduled two eviction trials at the same time, as was her habit, because tenants often didn't show up. Wilson's case was set for 10 a.m., but it was past 11 when the hearing got underway. It lasted 20 minutes.
The CDC order that protected Wilson and his family applied only to cases in which a tenant was behind on rent, the magistrate explained. That's why the landlord hadn't been able to evict him previously. Now, because the landlord was arguing he should be out because his lease is up, the CDC order didn't apply.
"Do you have another defense?" she asked him. He looked down and shuffled his papers.
"Let me ask you this: Did you sign the lease that ended?" she asked. Yes, he said.
"Did you get the notice the lease ended?"
"Yes, ma'am, but after the lease ended," he replied.
Paprzycki asked again -- did he have any other defenses? Wilson said he had health conditions -- did that matter? He has COPD, and his teenage granddaughter has asthma so severe she couldn't run during her PE classes. No, it didn't matter, the magistrate said.
"This is probably the one part of the court house that people go to and they're not here through any fault of their own," she said. "People lose their jobs, their rent money gets stolen, they get hit by cars, they get cancer."
Or, in Wilson's case, he'd lost his job as a cook at KFC. He'd spent his stimulus check on rent and other bills. The boost to unemployment insurance from the federal government, which added $600 to his weekly check, expired in July, when he began to fall behind on his rent. He had a cellphone bill, an internet bill that has to be paid so the girls can keep learning remotely, a family to feed. He had no savings and no one who could loan him money to get a new place.
Wilson sat there and listened to Paprzycki gently break the news to him that the sheriff would be coming to his apartment, where he'd lived for 15 years, and evict him in the coming days.
He said in an interview he didn't know until July that he wouldn't be able to renew his lease, and at that point, he and his wife had no savings to find a new place.
"I'm stressing. I started smoking again, the stupidest thing I've ever done," he said. He's from Queens, and his accent gives him away. He was a cop in New York for a decade before joining the Army in the late 1990s. He served an extended tour in Iraq right at the beginning of the invasion. "I'm that stressed. I love my family. I'm worried about that. I have nobody. Nobody else. This is my family."
Wilson walked out of the courtroom, called his wife, and the two of them cried.
Twenty-four hours after that Oct. 20 hearing, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that protected Wilson, his family and thousands of other renters in Colorado who faced eviction because of the pandemic and the economic hammer its taken to their finances. The order was the latest and strongest in a series of efforts to stop what advocates say is a coming tsunami of evictions (a suggestion that landlord representatives said was overblown). A report by the governor's eviction task force reported that as many as 230,000 Coloradans face eviction by the end of the year.
Until May 31 -- the same day that Wilson's lease expired -- no one could be evicted in Colorado because of an initial, blanket moratorium instituted by Polis. That expired, and evictions began to tick slowly upward statewide. Filings never got near pre-pandemic levels, but in August and September, landlords filed more than 3,200 eviction proceedings. The $1,200 stimulus checks were five months old, the federal boost to unemployment had expired in July, and the pandemic had shown no sights of stopping.
Then, on Sept. 4, the CDC issued its order. In a sprawling document, the agency required that no tenant who met several criteria could be evicted for not paying rent. The criteria included that they make less than $100,000; that they had made best efforts to get housing assistance; that they had made at least partial rent payments; and that they had been financially impacted by the pandemic.
But the order left shades of gray for individual judges to fill in. In order to qualify, a tenant only needed to sign a declaration saying that he or she met the criteria. Did the landlord have to give the tenant notice of the CDC order? Did the courts? Could a landlord challenge the legitimacy of the declaration? At what point were the proceedings supposed to stop? Were courts allowed to move them through but stop short of actually evicting, or should they be stopped at the outset?
"It varies wildly, widely and wildly, and it is totally dependent on each individual judge to understand," said Reenie Terjak, the director of advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, which provides legal assistance to low-income tenants. "Most of the judges are attorneys, and they're getting these new orders, it might be federal or state, and they have to interpret them."
Eventually, on Oct. 16, the CDC issued guidelines that clarified some of the questions. They cleared the way for courts to hold veracity hearings -- allowing landlords to question whether tenants meet the CDC guidelines -- and indicated that court proceedings could go up to the point that the tenants are actually removed from the house or apartment. Even that can be damaging to a tenant: Once you have a judgement against you in an eviction case, it can be harder to find another place to live.
In her courtroom last week, Paprzycki told a landlord that it was very difficult to practice eviction law right now.
"I literally wake up every day, and I don't know what the law is," she said.
A day later, Polis's order came out.
The order clarified much of what was unclear in the CDC order: It extended the protections to renters like Wilson, who faced eviction because their leases had expired. It put a full stop on even initiating an eviction proceeding. Terjak said it would provide clarity to judges on what they could and couldn't do, and that it would fill in the holes left by the CDC.
Praise was much thinner from the landlords.
"It purports to say you can't even file the lawsuit," said Drew Hamrick, a senior vice president with the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. "We're back to depriving citizens of being able to tell a judge their story and see what she or he has to say about the outcome. That’s a big deal."
Mark Tschetter, who's law firm bills itself as the top landlord firm in the state, called the order "unlawful and unconstitutional." He said the moratorium and others like it were "crushing, crushing, crushing small landlords." He said that hundreds of his firm's clients were on a call together Friday morning and that more than 70 of them were open to taking legal action against the state.
In response to a list of questions sent last week, a spokesman for Polis referred a reporter to a list of frequently asked questions released Friday night.
Both men said the fears of a looming wave of evictions had been greatly exaggerated; Hemrick said that 95 percent of tenants had paid rent on time in September and that the low number of eviction filings was proof that the situation's gravity had been overstated.
But experts and tenants' attorneys say that the various orders and government programs are the reason that the eviction crisis hasn't metastasized. Jennifer Rodgers, a member of the state's eviction task force and a vice president at the affordable housing nonprofit Enterprise, noted that evictions were ticking upward and that the various financial lifelines tenants used -- stimulus checks, improved unemployment benefits, credit cards, loans from friends and family -- were running out.
According to data provided by the task force, Colorado tenants owe $470 million in rent. In September, 140,000 households were behind on housing payments, in part because federal stimulus had stopped.
"We all talked about a cliff," she said. "Do we want to plan ahead of a cliff, or do we want to plan after we've gone over the cliff?"
Rodgers said some on the task force had been in favor of extending the housing moratorium until the end of the pandemic. Currently, Polis's order expires Nov. 21, and the CDC's will disappear on Jan. 1, 2021. There's no reason to believe the pandemic will be over by then, but the state also must ensure landlords don't slip underwater, housing experts said.
"The sharks will feast. If you have scale as a landlord, you’ll be able to handle this for a longer period of time," said Peter LiFari, the executive director of Adams County's Maiker Housing Partners. "You may even prosper because there’s going to be a lot of availability next year and the year afterwards ... Larger scale landlords are going to purchase (smaller, distressed landlords), and what we’ve seen time and time again is generally rents go up and folks are displaced. Everybody loses in that scenario. That’s why rental assistance is mutually beneficial. Landlords need and equally benefit. The challenge is their availability. Is there enough emergency rental assistance available? The answer is no."
Rodgers said she hoped that Congress will "pump some new federal money into rental assistance." Federal money left over from the last big round of stimulus spending must be spent by Dec. 31. Two rental assistance programs established in Colorado have spent about $10 million.
Hamrick, of the apartment association, said those two programs still had money to spend and were proof that robust rental assistance was already available. But Rodgers said there was a backlog of applications, and the housing task force projects that the two programs will run out of money between November and December. LiFari added that rental assistance was only meeting a quarter of what tenants need.
What comes next, on all fronts, remains unclear. Attorneys, both for tenants and landlords, say that while Polis's order is clearer than the initial blow from the CDC, details still need to be worked out.
Heather Hicks, an attorney for Colorado Legal Services who practices in El Paso County, said it's not yet clear how judges there will interpret the order and whether it will be applied retroactively. In other words, should the order stop all current eviction proceedings in their tracks? Or should those already underway continue? Hicks said at least one other county, Weld, was not applying the order retroactively.
In Denver County Courts, court administrator Kristin Wood said, judges there "will not accept an eviction filing" unless the landlord demonstrates to the court that the tenant isn't covered by Polis's moratorium.
Robert McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said in an email that "we have notified all of our judges about the order, but it will be up to each judge to determine how the order applies in individual cases."
Tschetter, the landlord attorney, said he still saw gray area in Polis's order "but certainly less" than that of the CDC's.
The list of frequently asked questions released by Polis's office does not provide clarity on court interpretation.
For Wilson, the Colorado Springs veteran who was given a formal eviction judgment last week, Polis's order is "hope at the end of the tunnel." On Friday, Wilson said he gave the needed paperwork to his landlord. He said he's already been in touch with a legal aide.
Wilson has been looking for jobs constantly, he said. After court last week, he reached out to the Veteran's Administration for the first time; he'd been resistant in the past because he felt other people needed the help more. He's waiting on paperwork to kickstart that process but hopes that the moratorium will buy him and his family the time he needs.
"It was a shot in the arm," he said. "I pray it will be what we need. I'm hoping it'll be enough."