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Eviction levels could be ‘catastrophic’ in Durango if freeze is not extended

United Way rental assistance almost doubles this year
United Way of Southwest Colorado, which offers rent assistance, has nearly doubled the amount they gave to help with people’s bills this year.

A state freeze on evictions has helped Coloradans keep their housing during a pandemic that has forced businesses, restaurants and performance venues to close and put many out of work.

From August to October, the most recent data available, Colorado’s total unemployment rate was 6.5%, down from 10.6% in June. But the pandemic only exacerbated a growing affordable housing problem in Durango, and landlords are struggling to keep their businesses operational as renters struggle to pay their monthly rents or mortgages.

Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for the Southwest, said if the statewide freeze on evictions is not extended into the new year, the result for the Durango-area renters could be a “catastrophic level of eviction notices.”

“A large number of people owe a large amount of rent,” Salkind said.

Some help from the federal government could be on the way. Congress on Monday night passed a second stimulus package to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill provides $25 billion in emergency rental relief and a one-month extension of a nationwide eviction moratorium to Jan. 31.

The eviction freeze ensures landlords can’t kick residents out for not paying their bills. But renters are still obligated to pay their rent fees dating back to the first missed payment when the freeze is lifted.

An estimated 22% of Colorado households are not at all or only slightly confident they’ll be able to pay next month’s rent, according to a U.S. Census survey from mid-November. And about 31% of Colorado households said they have had difficulty covering the typical household expenses in the last week.

The Colorado state Legislature met for a special session in early December, squeezing out 10 bills in three days. One bill allocated $44.5 million to the state’s housing development grant fund, which provides relief to both hard-pressed renters and landlords.

Landlords can also apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants through the Property Owner Preservation program.

State grants typically pay for one month of rent or one monthly mortgage payment. In total, the state authorized $54 million more in housing assistance.

Another new law from the special session transfers $5 million to Energy Outreach Colorado, which provides direct utility bill assistance to low-income Coloradans. But these measures are only a stop-gap until the next legislative session in mid-January, meant to help those who are struggling until the $600 stimulus payments from the federal government can reach mailboxes in Durango.

Christy Schaerer, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, said the organization saw less need after the initial stimulus checks went out.

In March, at the start of the pandemic, the organization saw a 45% increase in the number of people calling the Women’s Resource Center in need of help. When stimulus checks went out, the increase dropped to 25%.

Six members of Gov. Jared Polis’ task force asked him last week to extend the eviction moratorium through at least January, as case numbers continue to climb in Southwest Colorado.

“It’s something hard for tenants, landlords and agencies to predict,” Salkind said as her organization gears up for the new year.

Housing Solutions for the Southwest runs a rental-assistance voucher program, transitional living programs and offers housing counseling for families in Southwest Colorado. Since the start of the pandemic, the organization has funded close to half a million dollars in housing assistance, more than triple what the organization typically funds.

“And that’s obviously not addressing everyone in the area that has a need,” Salkind said.

United Way of Southwest Colorado, which also offers rent assistance, has nearly doubled the amount it gives to help with people’s bills this year. The organization offered between $400,000 and $450,000 for rent and other related expenses.

“That’s huge – I’m sure it’s a record,” United Way President Lynn Urban said.

Much of the assistance United Way provided went to people seeking financial assistance for the first time.

“It’s a hard place to be, but it’s not a bad thing to ask for help,” Urban said.

Lacking shelter

Donna Mae Baukat, co-founder and executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, works directly with people without a permanent home in Durango. As more minimum wage workers lose their jobs, Baukat said she is concerned more people will experience homelessness in the cold winter months if the eviction freeze is not extended into 2021.

“The worst case scenario is landlords closing their doors, and we have to prepare for it,” she said.

Nonprofits like Baukat’s help people without a permanent home get back on their feet, and connect people who are new to the area and struggling financially to obtain the right resources.

Ashley Wilmering, 27, and Lawrence Wilmering, 23, recently arrived in Durango from Pennsylvania to live with Ashley Wilmering’s parents during her pregnancy.

“Me and my wife wanted a better life for our baby,” Lawrence Wilmering said.

But soon after the couple made it to Durango, they were asked to leave Ashley Wilmering’s parents’ home. With only enough money for a one-night hotel stay, they reached out to Baukat for help.

The two were searching for low-income housing, and Lawrence Wilmering started working as a line cook at Bird’s restaurant in Durango when he got COVID-19. Baukat was able to secure a two-week hotel stay so the pair could quarantine safely.

“God blessed us with a miracle,” Lawrence Wilmering said. “Baukat called us back right as we lost hope.”

The shelter and other community resources Ashley Wilmering looked into were full because of the pandemic.

The Durango Community Shelter has only about 30 beds, and congregate shelter poses the threat of spreading the virus among a vulnerable population.

“A lot of people are losing out on work, and not able to pay their bills,” Lawrence Wilmering said. “People don’t choose to leave their homes.”

But Community Compassion Outreach and other nonprofit organizations in the area that help people like the Wilmerings are raising less money as community members lose their capacity to donate during the COVID-19-induced recession.

And hotel stays are a temporary solution to a growing problem.

“We’re going to see a huge migration of homeless people from California come to rural places like Durango,” Baukat said, because it isn’t as crowded with other people struggling to secure permanent housing or work.

Cities such as Denver are re-enforcing camping bans after holding off at the start of the pandemic. And the number of people living in the streets in Denver is growing. A survey conducted in the Denver metro area early this year showed an increase in people sleeping in the street from about 5,300 in 2018 to 6,100 in 2020 even before the start of the pandemic.

Searching for a solution

Based on her work in the community, Baukat estimates about 200 people are without a permanent home in Durango. But that doesn’t include those who are living in their cars or couch surfing.

The homeless camp south of Durango known as Purple Cliffs has not been forcibly removed, but it is dangerous to camp in the winter as temperatures drop below zero and winter storms roll in.

So Baukat is proposing to build small homes with low rent rates in a village-type setting for people who are ready to transition to a permanent home. Apartment buildings can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder in people who have stayed in the streets – noises make them feel unsafe and like they can’t settle in, she said.

A central gathering building would also encourage people to socialize, and if they feel like part of a community they are less likely to turn to alcohol or drugs, Baukat said.

But the organization is struggling to find property for the project, as well as investors.

“We are facing resistance and a lack of interest,” Baukat said. But professional architects and builders have already donated their time to help develop a plot, she said.

Martha Johnson, director of human services for La Plata County, said county officials received approval to pay for non-congregate shelter for people with COVID-19 who are not able to quarantine in isolation or who have high-risk medical conditions.

Even though it is a short-term solution, the county has helped 55 people since May with hotel stays. Most of the funding has been used in the last two months with the onset of colder weather and a higher number of cases in the county.

The money for the temporary housing is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with some coming from the county’s CARES Act funding.

With new federal and state funding for landlords and renters, and more expected next month, Salkind said an extended eviction freeze from the governor’s office would give property owners and their tenants some time to catch up and pay their bills by accessing those resources before the spring.

“I’m surprised we haven’t heard anything yet,” she said.

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