CO Senate kills eviction protections, a blow to progressive housing goals

A bill to cut down on renter displacement died a procedural death in the Colorado Senate late Sunday night, with a log-jammed calendar and uncertain support dooming a key piece of progressive Democrats’ housing agenda.

HB23-1171 would’ve enacted “just-cause” eviction protections in Colorado, essentially giving renters a first right of refusal on whether to re-new their leases. Supporters said the bill would’ve cut down on displacement and insulated renters from discriminatory or arbitrary — as well as costly — removal by landlords. Several renters had testified at earlier committee meetings that their leases weren’t renewed after they asked for repairs. Amid a broader increase in both rents and evictions statewide, the bill represented a central piece of some Democratic lawmakers’ push to protect renters this year.

With the session ending Monday night, the full Senate needed to give the measure an initial aye vote by the end of day Sunday. Supporters had already accepted the bill was likely to die, either because it lacked sufficient support or because of the ticking clock. Senate Democrats were also rushing through a bill to flatten TABOR checks, and with an hour to go Sunday night, just-cause fizzled out.

“I feel like just-cause should’ve been an easy thing,” said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. She and other supporters have pointed to a policy document circulated by the Biden administration supporting the policy as evidence that it wasn’t a radical proposal. “The White House was like, just cause should be part of your package of policies that state legislatures should be passing because it’s good policy. And we failed to do that. So I think that is a huge hit.”

The measure had faced opposition from Republicans and more moderate Democrats. Opponents said it would entrench “problem” tenants and prompt more landlords to get out of the rental market. A message sent to the Colorado Apartment Association, which opposed the bill, was not returned Monday.

Though the bill passed the House in mid-March, it languished on the Senate calendar for weeks. It eventually passed a needed committee vote on May 4, but only after a scheduling conflict shifted the committee’s makeup and removed a skeptical Democratic swing vote. Legislators said they planned to further amend the bill to shepherd it through the Senate and strip out provisions that would require some landlords pay relocation costs.

Its demise is the latest progressive priority bill to fail this session, in a year in which Democrats held a supermajority in the state House and a near-supermajority in the Senate. Other measures — concerning substance use, assault weapons, rent control, gig workers and employee scheduling — have also failed, to the increasing frustration of the group of lawmakers supporting them.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and the just-cause bill’s co-sponsor in the Senate, said the bill’s death was emblematic of a more frustrating dynamic in the Capitol.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” she said of legislation in the Capitol. “But somehow, the policy priorities of the Black and Latino caucuses, there is no path forward, unless you gut your bills in order to appease people who want to maintain the status quo in this building.”

Other supporters raised similar frustrations about the bill gathering dust on the calendar. But Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said there was no “nefarious” effort to delay the just-cause bill and ensure its death. He said the delay was due to supporters “trying to find a path forward, not because it’s being held against their will.” He said he didn’t know if the bill had sufficient votes to pass the Senate.

Either way, just-cause’s failure at the session’s end marks the end of five months of mixed results for progressive legislators who sought to fundamentally re-orient the relationship between renters and landlords. Bills have passed this year to curb application and pet fees, better regulate lease agreements, cap income-to-rent ratio requirements, and protect lower-income tenants from eviction.

On its last day Monday, the legislature was still debating SB23-213, the sweeping land-use bill that would incentivize development and density in Colorado cities. After the property tax proposal was criticized for not benefiting renters, Democrats rushed through a bill to flatten TABOR rates, and they amended the property tax measure to set aside more rental aid for at-risk tenants.

Another bill (HB23-1190), which would give local governments a right of first refusal to buy apartment complexes and turn them into affordable housing, was still being negotiated as the clock ticked down Monday. It had been amended repeatedly and limited in the Senate, but supporters were still bullish on its potential to match a market-based solution with the state’s affordable housing crisis.

If the bill’s enacted, it would represent the first such right-of-first-refusal program in the country, supporters say.

Legislative leaders defended the General Assembly’s work this year as meaningful for tenants. House Speaker Julie McCluskie told reporters last week that she was pleased with the housing bills that had passed, and Fenberg said tens of millions of dollars had been devoted to affordable housing in recent years. Much of that money, he said, is still rolling out.

“I think we’ve done a lot on housing, comprehensively, and I think we’ll have done even more by the end of the day,” he said, referring to the ongoing negotiations over the land-use bill. “I think there’s always going to be more to do.”

But Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat who sponsored just-cause, still cast the session as an overall failure for renter protections. He pointed to the scale of Democrats’ control over the legislature and the breadth of housing unaffordability here, and he asked:

“With all of those dynamics, did we pass anything that would’ve been that much different if we had a one-vote majority?” he said. “And that’s the important thing to keep in mind.”

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