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Efforts to protect tenants' rights revived after initial measure killed



Colorado is in dubious company when it comes to protecting tenants' rights, according to a group of law students at the University of Denver.

A recent survey by DU's Student Law Office concludes that Colorado is the only state besides Arkansas that doesn't have some sort of "warranty of habitability" law -- a guarantee that, at the very least, a rental unit should be fit for human habitation.

Now, state Sen. Bill Thiebaut, D-Pueblo, is hoping Colorado will join the 48 other states with habitability laws on the books. Thibaut, who's been working with the law students, last week introduced Senate Bill 192, which would give tenants multiple remedies if a landlord fails to live up to a lease agreement.

"All it means is, 'Is the place [where] you're living fit for a human being to live in?'" Thiebaut said. If not, he said, tenants should have legal recourse.

For example, if a landlord fails to make a rental unit available to the tenant on the scheduled move-in day, Thiebaut's bill would give the tenant the right to break the lease, withhold rent or even sue for damages. Similarly, if a landlord fails to provide "essential services" such as heat or water, the tenant would be able to break the lease with 30 days' notice, unless the landlord fixes the problem within two weeks. Under another provision, tenants would be able to take care of minor maintenance problems themselves, submit the receipt to the landlord, and have the cost deducted from the rent.

"They deserve better"

Attempts to pass similar measures have failed numerous times over the past decades, and SB 192 is likely to draw fire from the landlords' lobby, the Colorado Apartment Association. Just last month, the House killed Senate Bill 118, a more limited tenants-rights measure introduced by Sen. Mary Ellen Epps, R-Colorado Springs.

Under Epps' bill, a tenant would have the right to break a lease if the landlord failed to fix a "major defect" with the rental unit. Epps said the legislation was inspired by a report on Colorado Springs television station KKTV/Channel 11, titled "Landlords' Hall of Shame," which exposed the substandard conditions of many local rental properties.

"When I saw some of the living conditions that people were living in, or having to live in because they're poor, I was just stunned," Epps said. "I thought they deserve better."

The bill received overwhelming support in the Senate, where Sen. Bruce Cairns, R-Arapahoe County, cast the sole vote against it. In the House, it passed out of the Business Affairs Committee on a 7-3 vote after supporters crowded the committee hearing room.

"We were able to put pressure on them by packing the hearing floor," said Cyndy Kulp, director of the Springs-based Housing Advocacy Coalition, which helped organize supporters.

But when the bill came to the House floor, it died on a 36-28 vote. Two members who had voted for it in committee, Ken Kester, R-Las Animas County, and Pam Rhodes, R-Thornton, voted against it on the floor.

"When they thought no one was watching, they changed their vote," Kulp complained.

Also voting "no" were Reps. Bill Cadman, Doug Dean, Lynn Hefley, Keith King and Dave Schultheis, all El Paso County Republicans. Three local lawmakers, fellow Republican Reps. Richard Decker, Bill Sinclair and Mark Cloer, supported the bill. All except Schultheis and Cloer have received campaign contributions from the landlords' lobby.

"I was very, very disappointed," Epps said of the defeat. She blamed the outcome on the Apartment Association. "They wanted nothing, no bill whatsoever, and they set out to kill it. ... Lobbyists pack a lot of power up here."

Epps said she is supporting Thiebaut's bill, but predicted its chances in the House will be slim. "It's gonna die," she said.

Deal with it

Jamie Glonek, a spokesman for the Denver Metro Apartment Association -- an affiliate of the Colorado Apartment Association -- said the landlords' lobby would likely oppose Thiebaut's bill. He said the lobby fought Epps' bill because it only gave landlords 72 hours to rectify a problem, and because the language in the bill was too broad.

"The 'major defect' wasn't defined," Glonek said.

Generally speaking, "I don't know that we're in opposition to landlord-tenant laws," Glonek said. However, he added, the Apartment Association opposes laws that "give tenants an upper hand."

He then went on to argue that landlord-tenant laws aren't necessary at all. If Colorado Springs is having problems with bad landlords, the problem should be handled locally, he said. Moreover, tenants are protected by general contract laws, Glonek argued. If a landlord violates a lease, the tenant can take the landlord to court, he said.

But supporters of tenants' rights point out that local municipalities deal only with building codes and not with contractual law, which is the province of the Legislature. A city can order a landlord to make repairs but can't protect a tenant if the landlord refuses to comply.

Thiebaut, meanwhile, said general contract laws don't give tenants much protection because leases are usually written to protect only the landlords. "'Sign it or don't move in' is the concept you're faced with," Thiebaut said. "You can't really negotiate the terms."

Thiebaut said he has asked the Colorado Apartment Association to sit down with him and discuss possible changes to the bill. "Perhaps we can work something out to where all sides can agree on something," he said.

Glonek said the association would be willing to look for common ground. "Absolutely, we'd be open to it," he said.

-- Terje Langeland

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