Friday, 1 Mar 2024

Colorado lawmakers to boost rental assistance program

Colorado lawmakers are poised to send $8 million to the state emergency rental assistance program to keep it afloat until Proposition 123 money become available.

The pandemic-era emergency rental assistance program stopped taking applicants in November to make sure the number of applications didn’t outpace available money. The mid-fiscal year infusion will keep it operating. The fiscal year runs from July through June.

The state emergency rental assistance program launched in February 2021 with federal COVID relief money. Payments to distressed renters have since increased from about $2 million per month to more than $20 million a month in 2022. The Department of Local Affairs program targets lower-income Coloradans.

The money won’t allow the applications to reopen, but will help to keep the program running for current need, Department of Local Affairs spokesperson Chynna Cowart said.

“The overall impact of this program is significant, with far less families evicted and more applicants having opportunities to stabilize their housing,” according to a statement sent by Cowart.

So far, the supplemental budget increase has passed through the senate on a unanimous vote. It is expected to be heard in the House of Representatives next week. The extra money comes from a separate pot of federal COVID relief money, Joint Budget Committee members said.

State Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat who serves on the committee, recommended the increase — an unusual reversal, since departments typically ask for the budget adjustments, not lawmakers. She said they wanted to make sure the program can continue at least through the end of the fiscal year and when other programs may come online.

“We wanted to make sure that we’re filling that gap for the remainder of this budget year to ensure that we’re able to continue to support Coloradans who are needing rental assistance to stay housed,” Sirota said.

In January, there were 1,101 eviction filings in Denver alone, according to the Community Economic Defense Project. It’s nearly double the amount of eviction filings in the city in January 2022, according to the advocacy organization.

Zach Neumann, the group’s executive director, said he sees a direct line between pandemic-era eviction prevention programs drying up and the increase in eviction filings. He noted that rents have skyrocketed in the city, as has the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“It’s really important the legislature took this step,” Neumann said. “It’ll immediately help people who need to pay their rent.”

During a caucus meeting to discuss supplemental budget requests, Senate Democrats said rental assistance was one of the top questions they received from constituents — including emails that arrived during the meeting itself. Democrats hold majorities in each chamber of the General Assembly.

Even with the extra appropriation, “we know that this continues to be an urgent need,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and the committee chair, said.

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican and committee member, said the money helps the senate to “fulfill our obligation that we made last year.” While the governor and executive branch departments often make budget proposals and requests, the legislature is the branch that actually controls the money, she noted.

“It gives people that need that emergency rental assistance that extra couple of months to figure out what they do next,” Kirkmeyer said. “That’s an appropriate way for us to treat all Coloradans and it goes back to that affordability issue we’ve been talking about the past couple of years.”

Voters passed Proposition 123 in November. It requires the state to earmark hundreds of millions of dollars to housing, including affordable housing programs, eviction prevention and rental assistance.

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