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Rent has skyrocketed around the country this year, and Denver is no exception. The metro area currently has the highest average rents of any major city in the so-called fly-over states, according to a June report from Realtor.com, and we might even lose that caveat soon: The city’s median rent of $2,032 has risen more than 10 percent since June 2021, edging Denver’s rental market ever closer to the nation’s most historically expensive cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The housing pinch is so acute that a state Emergency Rental Assistance Program has been flooded by applicants hoping for financial relief since late 2021.
So when a recent series of screenshots that appear to show Colorado landlords debating how much to raise rents on their “good” tenants hit Twitter, outrage followed.
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“I can’t believe anyone can afford to feed themselves after paying rent… anyways, should I raise rent by 5% or 10%?” pic.twitter.com/UsQrvzAAYk
— Joe’s Crab Shack conscientious objector (@JNCO_jorts) July 8, 2022
The screengrabs were taken from a private Facebook group called “Mile High Landlords,” and show members from the group, presumably landlords, responding to this prompt: “Tenants want to renew – yay! Current market rates in the Highlands made me wonder, ‘How does anyone afford to feed themselves after paying rent.’ Anyways, for amazing tenants do I raise it 5% (?) I’ve seen some posts saying 10%, but that is asking them to pay an extra $320 a month which is outrageous to me. [sic]”
“I’m sure they are expecting at least 5%,” another group member responded. “In the end, it’s a free market, so how much profit do you want to leave on the table?” It was just one of several similar suggestions shown in the Facebook post’s comments. Twitter did not take kindly to the screenshots, with some calling the casualness with which rent hikes were being discussed “monstrous.” One user even posted the address of a landlord shown in the screenshots and then attempted to justify the doxing by saying it was so the landlord’s tenants would know what was being said.
Not all reactions were so extreme, and the tweet also caught the attention and re-tweet buttons of a couple of progressive lawmakers in Colorado, including state Representative Emily Sirota and Candi CdeBaca, the Denver city councilwoman for District 9, who added her own commentary, beginning with, “this is gross.” Since she was elected in 2019 on a platform that centered on housing affordability, CdeBaca has successfully co-sponsored a bill to provide free legal counsel to renters fighting evictions and is currently convening a Housing Justice Advisory Group to examine ways to prevent the displacement of renters and homeowners in her district. So in the midst of such a red hot market, we sat down with the 36-year-old lawmaker to talk about the tweet storm and the challenges facing Denver’s renters.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: What sparked you to retweet those screenshots and draw more attention to them?
CdeBaca: Outrageous rent increases were something that I knew was happening. I just didn’t have tangible proof until that moment to show people. We’ve been seeing jumps as high as 15 to 20 percent year after year, and if they’re doing great, people are only getting a three percent cost of living increase in their salaries each year. It’s arbitrary the way that landlords are pricing things, but the general public thinks that the free market has some kind of formula for setting rents. I think you get a visceral understanding of that illusion when you see landlords throwing darts at a board to pick a price. It doesn’t matter how much housing we build if you can set prices like that.
You recently hosted a “renters’ rights legal night.” What are some of the stories you heard from your constituents?
It’s people saying: “I have been in this unit for 10 years and have had very small increases, and this year my rent doubled.” Or they’re saying, “this year my building was sold, and I have a whole new landlord who is not renewing my contract.”
You mentioned in one of your newsletters that renters are facing other predatory practices, as well. What are some examples, and what can be done about them?
I feel like we’ve got to figure out how to track companies that take multiple applications for vacant units and then collect all of those application fees, even while knowing that they’re not going to rent to all of those applicants. They’re just gouging people on application fees. One solution might be having a common application in a database shared with different landlords instead of having people apply over and over and over with those different fees.
You championed the city’s new legal aid program that launched last summer, which provides free lawyers to low- and moderate-income renters facing eviction. How’s that going?
Well, one part that’s frustrating to me is that a lot of people still don’t know about the program and that they have a right to free counsel. But a good thing is that every single person who’s been represented by an attorney on a case so far has not had an eviction on their record. Every. Single. One.
There’s been national coverage about how rental homes are being bought up by large conglomerates, which often raise rents on existing tenants. Is there any data on how much of Denver’s rental market is corporate-owned?
This is one of the most frustrating parts about the lack of leadership in our city. This is information and research that I believe the city should have, or at least be doing. Instead, we take all of our data about the market from the Denver Metro Association of Realtors and other groups like it, which have an interest in maintaining confidence in the market, therefore their data will always be geared that way. So they’re going to tell you, “Oh, you shouldn’t be worried about out-of-state conglomerates buying up real estate.” They’re going to tell you it’s a healthy market.
One solution you’ve called for in response to the viral screenshots is rent control, which has been banned in Colorado since 1981. Why do you think it’s needed?
The rent control ban is one of our biggest barriers to meeting our housing needs. We need legislators at the state level to take the housing crisis seriously enough to take local legislators’ hands out of handcuffs.
There are well-established arguments against rent control—or what’s increasingly being referred to as rent stabilization—including that it’s ineffective in the long run. What do you make of those counterarguments?
The rent control of 2022 does not need to be the rent control of the 1980s. We are not talking about locking in a specific amount. We’re talking about tying the rent to other relevant measures, like the cost of living and the area median income. We have to make the relationships among salary, rent, median income, and affordability clear. And everybody who opposes rent control, I think, is missing what was really highlighted by those tweets.