Colorado tenants plead for rent control as Colorado leaders eye long-term fix

For hour after hour, the pleas washed over lawmakers.

It began with 65-year-old Leonard Moralez, who said the rent on his Westminster apartment was set to increase by $500, consuming his $1,200 monthly fixed income. He’d spent three years unhoused, he told legislators, and now feared “that I’m going to be homeless again.”

Four hours later, Emma-Ingrid Pena-Carrera described how she and her husband sleep in the living room of their two-bedroom rental home in Green Valley Ranch so their children can have the bedrooms. Their rent is $2,500, she said, and covering it takes up more than half of the family’s income. Loans from friends, trips to the food bank and the sale of personal possessions keep them afloat.

“I know many of you ignore and can’t even imagine the way we live,” Pena-Carrera said in Spanish to members of the House’s Transportation, Housing and Local Government committee, which spent eight hours on Wednesday listening to back-and-forth testimony about the promises and perils of rent control.

The meeting was the first public hearing for HB23-1115, which would repeal a 42-year-old prohibition on local governments enacting rent control policies. The bill, which passed the committee after lawmakers placed guardrails around how rent control policies could be enacted in Colorado, pitted tenants versus landlords and housing advocates versus property developers and business groups. Elected officials from several Colorado towns and cities, including Denver councilwoman Robin Kniech, testified in support of the bill.

The measure has the support of nearly half of Colorado’s House Democrats, along with a coalition of housing and progressive groups and the vast majority of the more than 160 people who signed up to testify. But its skeptics and opponents include Gov. Jared Polis, along with the Colorado Apartment Association, various local chambers of commerce and realtor groups. While the bill wouldn’t establish any rent cap policies statewide, it would open the door for them on a local basis, which, opponents argue, would crater Colorado’s already lagging housing development.

Ted Leighty, the CEO of the Colorado Association of Home Builders, said he understood why the sponsors — Democratic Reps. Javier Mabrey and Elizabeth Velasco — brought the bill, but he called rent control “a false idol.”

“These policies always lead to housing shortages by repelling capital investment and discouraging new development, as well as reinvestment in existing units,” he told lawmakers. “Rents have to rise faster in properties not subject to controls in order to make projects work.”

That’s the source of Polis’s skepticism, too: In statements to the Post, his office has said he’s concerned about the “unintended consequences” of rent cap policies and their potential to hike up rent for non-protected units.

Opponents contend that rent cap policies have been unsuccessful elsewhere. St. Paul, for instance, passed a 3% cap on annual increases in 2021, only for city leaders to usher in exemptions several months later because of plummeting development. Rachel Beck, the executive director of the Colorado Competitive Council, referred lawmakers to a 2018 Brookings Institution analysis, which argued that “rent control appears to help current tenants in the short run, in the long run it decreases affordability, fuels gentrification, and creates negative spillovers on the surrounding neighborhood.”

Mabrey, an eviction defense attorney and the bill’s sponsor, countered that cities with rent stabilization policies, including Jersey City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, had approved more housing units per capita than Colorado cities between 2010 and 2018. He cast rent control as a tool — not a silver bullet — that should be available to local officials as they combat the housing crisis.

It wouldn’t fix supply, he said. That’s the job of Polis’s primary policy objective: land-use reform. But rent control, Mabrey said, can work hand-in-hand with zoning and supply-side policies.

As the hearing stretched past 9 p.m., tenant Christopher Bonham testified that he’d had a “good run” since he’d moved to Colorado in 2010. His apartment’s rent had stayed steady, and the property was well-maintained. Up until early 2020, he was “this close” to having enough money to buy a home of his own.

“None of that’s around anymore,” he said. A new property owner took over five years ago, and rent has increased every year since. “What I have today — I’m working 80 to 90 hours a week on average. I can’t keep up. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve got somebody that I’ve loved for a long time — I’m struggling to take care of her, she’s at a place where she can’t work anymore. And every day, it’s like I’m waking up to a nightmare.”

Bonham was one of the last to testify. To get the bill past some hesitant committee members, Mabrey proposed — and the committee approved — an amendment that would cover any locally enacted rent control policy, should the bill pass. The bill would now give new developments a 15-year exemption; require that any policy be applied uniformly, in an effort to avoid New York’s patchwork system; and mandate that policies be no harsher than 3% annual caps plus inflation.

With those tweaks, the bill passed 8-5, with Democratic Rep. Alex Valdez joining with the committee’s four Republicans in voting no. Nine hours after the hearing began, the remaining supporters in the room began to cheer.

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