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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Will rising evictions threaten incoming Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s homelessness plan?

It is no secret that incoming Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s top three priorities will be homelessness, homelessness and homelessness. He pledged to end homelessness in Denver within four years and set about meeting with community partners less than a week after winning election.

But continually rising rental costs and subsequent evictions could pose a significant obstacle to his plans and those of other elected officials across the Metro area.

During the pandemic, eviction aid protected many Americans from losing housing. As rental rates skyrocketed, that led many people to fear a tsunami of evictions would sweep across the country once that backstop was lifted.

Thankfully, it did not play out quite that way. While evictions did resume, landlords were not all in a rush to remove their tenants. It ended up being a gradual march back toward pre-pandemic levels. As the Apartment Association of Metro Denver noted last year, the eviction process is “costly, arduous and unpleasant” for landlords as well.

Unfortunately, the chance to see increased return on higher rents might be the impetus many needed. While rental price increases cooled recently, they climbed high enough and fast enough to tip the balance. For example, evictions in January 2023 were not only back to pre-pandemic levels but had doubled the rate from January 2022.

For renters, those rent increases frequently are de facto evictions. Because the rise in monthly rent amounts has outstripped wage growth over the past few years, it means an ever-greater portion of take home pay must be used to pay for the home itself. At some point, a tipping point is triggered.

In Colorado, a worker must earn $32.13 per hour to afford a two-bedroom unit without paying more than 30% of their income. That is higher than any neighboring state and trails only a few coastal states home to large urban populations such as California, New York, Washington, Massachusetts and New Jersey. It also represents just about the median income level in Denver; half the people in the city earn less.

These tensions are playing out across the country. It is not unique to Denver.

In fact, it is not unique along the Front Range. According to Princeton’s Eviction Lab (which does seem a bit outdated, especially because it does not have post-pandemic data), Denver’s 5.2 evictions per 100 renter households is eclipsed by each adjacent county. Douglas County clocked in at 7.4, JeffCo at 8.0, and both Arapahoe (11.5) and Adams (14.2) break double-digits. That follows a pattern of suburban areas across the country catching and eclipsing the eviction rates of their urban brethren.

You can expect those patterns to repeat as economic pressures continue to constrict around renters. 

In fact, that might be one of the biggest problems Johnston and his administration may face. An influx of newly unhoused neighbors from the suburbs attempting to access housing and services. 

While Johnston and his team work feverishly to implement his plan to build 20 micro communities comprising an additional 1,400 units of housing in tiny homes and converted motels and hotels, he also knows that evictions will pressure his plans. While he may be able to do something about it within the city boundaries, those that pour in from outside could add immense strain.

Misfortune and poverty rarely stay neatly confined to arbitrary municipal lines, so it should be expected that the vulnerable populations suffering their effects will not either. The better Johnston performs for unhoused Denverites, the more likely he will attract more from Lakewood and Aurora and Commerce City and every other municipality across the Front Range.

I doubt Johnston will be overwhelmed by it. My time working with him suggests he will simply roll up his sleeves, pull up his boots, tighten his belt buckle and address each new challenge as it comes. Whether that means working with neighboring mayors or finding solutions at the state level, Johnston will be relentless.

For example, after passing Proposition 123 to provide more affordable housing programs last fall, Johnston shifted immediately to developing a plan for those who might not be able to benefit.

Maybe he will team with Gov. Jared Polis, whose “More Housing Now” initiative deserved far better than the death handed down by the legislature at the end of the session. There are a multitude of problems that will require a multitude of often-overlapping answers. City and state officials working together have a far better chance to enact those answers if they work in conjunction.

Between now and the end of the year we should get a clearer picture of our unhoused problem and the role evictions will play within it. It certainly presents the most dire problem faced by an incoming mayor in my lifetime.

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