On Thursday, just days after city officials adopted Denver’s first dedicated affordable housing fund, community organizers marched to demand rent control from state lawmakers.
Rent control has been illegal in Colorado for the past 31 years. In 1981, the state legislature passed a law that banned the practice. In 2000, the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the ban in a now-infamous ruling called the Telluride decision. The decision has kept overt rent control off the state law books, but it also contains provisions that have allowed municipalities to find creative ways to address housing issues. For example, cities can limit rents if the housing authority partners with developers and has an ownership stake in developments.
Still, advocates think state lawmakers need to repeal the 1981 ban, thereby allowing municipalities to cap rents outright.
“We need our elected officials to hear us,” Claudia Vasquez of We Organize Westminster said after the march. “We are calling for rent control because families are being torn apart.”
Denver, like other Colorado cities, has been limited by the prohibition for years. Until this week’s passage of the city’s fund to provide affordable housing, rent control has been largely limited to for-sale units.
The trust fund relies on a dedicated, two-part funding stream of property taxes and a development fee applied to new commercial and residential developments, including rentals. The city will take the money to build affordable housing, including rentals, thus improving affordability without actually limiting rents.
The Telluride case prevents Denver from requiring apartment builders to rent-restrict some of the units they’re building. But, said Denver city attorney David Broadwell in an email, “We can require them to pay a fee to help the city address our affordability problems in general.”
Denver is a little late to the game. For years, Boulder took a bolder approach, requiring developers to either partner with the city to build affordable rental units or to pay a fee. The partnership requirement was Boulder’s nod to the Telluride decision, which said that cities can only impose rent control if they or their housing authorities have an ownership stake in the development.
No developer took the city up on the partnership offer, Boulder Inclusionary Housing Program Manager Michelle Allen told The Independent. It complicates insurance, taxes, and day-to-day operations and developers are generally leery of partnerships with government agencies.
But the requirement allowed Boulder to raise an average of $3 million a year for affordable housing, including rental units.
“We push it because we really want affordable housing,” Allen said. “A more conservative community might not be inclined toward that kind of intrusion in the free market, and then there’s the rent control statute on top of that.”
In response, Broadwell pointed out that Denver “did address residential rental projects, but only in the sense of offering a ‘voluntary incentive’ program to encourage apartment developers to include affordable units in their projects.”
In other words, while Boulder mandated the fee payments, Denver made it more attractive for developers to build affordable units instead of making it a hard requirement.
There are other options to ease the burden now faced by renters, Stephen Moore, Policy Director at the Front Range Economic Strategy Center wrote in an email.
For example, Moore wrote, Denver could define what justifies evicting a tenant, as San Francisco does. It could also require greater notice of rental increases. In Oregon, rent increases on month-to-month leases are prohibited in the first year and after that, tenants must be given 90 days’ notice.
In Denver, tenants can be, and often are, given 10 days’ notice.
Angel Tellez attended the march with his wife and toddler. He used to live in Westwood, along with the majority of his extended family.
He has had to move twice, first to another place in Westwood, and now he lives in Federal Heights. Both times, his rent unexpectedly jumped by over 200 dollars. He works as a delivery driver, and makes $30,000 per year. He has to support his son and mother, who lives with him, so $200/month hits hard.
“It’s hard because I miss my neighborhood and community in Westwood,” Tellez said. “I believe we’re all humans and we have the right to live without these rent increases.”