Evictions in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Colorado’s “Safer-at-Home” Order, which went into effect on April 27, 2020, provides that non-critical businesses may reopen with some restrictions – but individuals are still strongly encouraged to stay home when possible. Many Coloradans are also struggling to recover from economic hardships resulting from significant decreases in income or complete loss of employment. This has created understandable concerns for both renters and landlords.

Several cities and states have responded to these concerns by temporarily pausing evictions, but many tenants and landlords may be wondering what these particular measures actually do.

Landlord/Tenant Law, Generally: Unpaid Rent

When tenants do not pay rent, landlords can initiate legal proceedings to evict the tenant and to collect the unpaid rents. However, this does not mean landlords are freely permitted to evict tenants for failure to pay rent. Landlords seeking evictions must adhere to certain guidelines and requirements provided by applicable state laws.

All evictions must start with a legal proceeding. Landlords cannot remove a tenant from the leased premises without the assistance of courts. Landlords seeking a court-ordered eviction must also serve tenants with a summons and complaint. Once an eviction proceeding is initiated and the tenant is properly served with these initial pleadings, the court will then schedule a hearing or trial to determine whether the landlord or the tenant prevails based on applicable state laws. It is important that tenants stay involved in eviction proceedings and attend all scheduled hearings and trials. If the tenant fails to appear at the scheduled hearing or trial, the court may enter a default judgment in favor of the landlord.

Most states and lease agreements also require landlords to provide tenants with notice prior to initiating eviction proceedings. In these cases, if a tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord must give the tenant an opportunity to “cure” by paying the overdue rent. If the tenant has not cured after receiving proper notice and the applicable amount of time has passed, then the landlord may initiate legal proceedings and serve the tenant with a summons and complaint.

If a landlord prevails in an eviction proceeding, the landlord must then seek assistance from law enforcement in order to actually carry out the eviction. Once the landlord provides the court’s judgment to the applicable law enforcement agency, a police officer from that agency will provide the tenant with notice that he or she is being evicted. The officer will usually return to the premises after one or two days to escort the tenant off the property.

Effect of Temporarily Halting Evictions

When a city or state has mandated halts on evictions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it generally means that law enforcement agencies are temporarily prohibited from enforcing court-ordered evictions. Many local judges have also been given discretion to determine whether to continue hearing eviction proceedings.

Instead of enacting a statewide halt on evictions, Colorado deferred to individual localities to determine their own protocols for evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. The Denver Sheriff’s Department has suspended enforcement of evictions until further notice in order to prioritize the city’s resources. The Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court also granted local judges with authority to determine whether eviction proceedings will be suspended or postponed. Many courts – including those in Denver, Mesa County, Weld County, and Boulder County – have explicitly precluded new eviction applications during the COVID-19 advisory. Most Colorado courts have also issued standing orders stating that only emergency matters will be heard during the COVID-19 advisory, which categorically excludes eviction proceedings.

What this Means for Landlords and Tenants

Landlords seeking to enforce court-ordered evictions are unlikely to receive assistance from law enforcement until the applicable local or statewide suspension is lifted. Because landlords are not permitted to remove tenants without assistance from law enforcement, it may be impossible for some landlords to evict tenants for failure to pay rent during the COVID-19 crisis. Some areas have halted all housing evictions, which means that some tenants will not be evicted during the COVID-19 crisis for any reason, not just due to nonpayment of rent.

Due to the temporary closure of district and county courts across the U.S. and the discretion given to many local judges in suspending and/or postponing eviction proceedings, landlords also may not be able to initiate eviction proceedings or take any further actions in existing eviction proceedings during the COVID-19 crisis. Even if a landlord provides proper notice and serves their tenant with a summons and complaint, courts are unlikely to schedule a hearing or trial until the conclusion of the applicable COVID-19 advisory. Without a final hearing or trial, landlords cannot receive a court order granting the eviction.

Despite the temporary suspension of evictions, tenants are nonetheless required to pay rent and are generally liable for any unpaid rents under their lease agreements. Once local and state agencies resume normal operations, landlords will eventually be able to initiate and/or continue existing evictions proceedings and receive assistance from law enforcement in carrying out court-ordered evictions. Tenants who are unable to pay rent and/or past due rents will continue to face evictions. However, given the unpredictability of COVID-19 and the measures states and localities may take in response to future developments, it is uncertain when things will “go back to normal.”

What Landlords and Tenants Can do in the Meantime

If you are a landlord concerned about losing rental income during the COVID-19 crisis, or if you are a tenant who has experienced economic hardship and are concerned about your ability to pay rent:

  1. Be realistic, reasonable, and understanding as to the economic hardships both of you may be experiencing.
  2. Be civil. It is in everyone’s best interest to try to work together amicably and avoid unnecessary hostility and tension.
  3. Have a candid conversation about both of your financial situations and needs prior to rent being due.
  4. Tenants should continue to pay rent when possible. Avoid withholding rent unless absolutely necessary and only after discussing your financial situation with your landlord.
  5. Landlords should be accommodating as possible, especially if the tenant is suffering severe economic hardship due to loss of income.  
  6. If the tenant cannot pay full rent, have a discussion as to how much the tenant can reasonably pay, whether and when it will be possible for the tenant to pay any past due rent, and determine if a payment plan is feasible.
  7. If possible, tenants should provide landlords with proof of decreased or loss of income, including copies of paystubs, termination letters, notices from the tenant’s employer as to
    decreased hours, etc.
  8. Landlords who rely on rental income to pay mortgages or other living expenses should talk to applicable lenders and agencies about their financial situation to determine whether deferment of payments is possible. 
  9. Remember that legal proceedings can be stressful, time-consuming, and costly. It is in both the tenant and landlord’s best interest to at least attempt to reach an amicable solution without the assistance of the court. There is no guarantee that landlords will receive unpaid rents even a court order is obtained. For tenants, being evicted and/or having a judgment obtained against you may create difficulties in obtaining future housing, loans, and even employment.
  10. Keep detailed records – including records of paid and unpaid rents and communications between you and your tenant/landlord – and consult with an attorney in the event you must participate in a legal proceeding.

Regardless of the various hardships experienced by individuals due to the COVID-19 crisis, the attorneys and staff at Woody Law Firm hope that you and your loved ones remain safe during these uncertain times.

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