Aug 14, 2020

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Lived Experience: Community advocate calls for greater tenant-landlord fairness

by | Aug 14, 2020

Editor’s note: This vignette is part of the Lived Experience series, which highlights how Coloradans benefit from policy and advocacy efforts led by CCLP and its partners.

Imagine living in the same community for six years and paying rent every single month on time, only to receive a notification on your door stating that you will be evicted and that you owe $15,000 in rent.

“I’m like wait, how is that possible?” explains Ealasha Vaughner, the recipient of the aforementioned notice. “I would have been evicted by then [and] I’ve paid rent every month on time. There’s just no way.”

This notice was one among many of the problems that Ealasha experienced while living in a community that is managed by an affordable-housing organization. “Throughout the years I have had a lot of issues,” Ealasha says. “I’ve had to unfortunately make sure I have the right emails, make sure I keep copies of everything I sign, because every year you have to recertify [to continue living with the housing organization], and every year something was wrong.”

Before being accepted to live in her current affordable housing community, Ealasha shared an apartment with her then-husband. “We had two incomes and a house and were doing exactly what we were supposed to do,” she says. “Unfortunately, my ex-husband, he kept getting in trouble…we ended up losing our house and me and my daughter were homeless for about three to four months until I was able to get the temporary housing.”

Ealasha is a mother of two daughters, aged seven and four. In addition to having three bachelor’s degrees, she is an active community member and advocate who is part of several policy groups, including Clayton Early Learning’s Parent Ambassadors Program — for which she is one of the founding members. Due to COVID-19 and the transition to online schooling, she spent the past several months at home with her daughters. “Working, trying to do their schooling from 8:30 (a.m.) to 3:30 (p.m.) as well as taking care of them at home has been different to say the least,” she says, “[I’m] trying to balance that all out.”

It was during these recent months that Ealasha received her eviction letter. After investigating, Ealasha found that the $15,000 balance was due to errors made by previous leasing managers. “For the last two years the old leasing managers were not turning in paperwork that I signed,“ she explains. “They didn’t tell me I had to sign a new letter each year saying how much my rent was. So, my rent was supposed to be a certain amount for the last two years and I was paying something completely different.”

Ultimately, Ealasha had to pay $5,000 to resolve the issue. “It’s [between] a rock and a hard place because you got to pay the balance off,” Ealasha says. “On paper, it’s your responsibility… So, I had to and have been looking for rental assistance, picking out of my own emergency fund just to pay off this balance that could have been prevented if the housing department did their job.”

This is not the first time that Ealasha has been threatened with eviction while living in her current residence. Previously, her housing community had accused her of fraud when they believed her to be working two full-time jobs — one in Denver and one in Wyoming. Ealasha explains, “I got a letter on my door saying that I was going to get evicted and get federal charges because I wasn’t turning in income… I had to do all this stuff to show I wasn’t working in a different job, even though it was very obvious that someone had taken my identity.”

Ealasha believes that more regulations are needed in order to ensure that paperwork is properly done and tenants are not forced to bear the brunt of managerial mistakes.

“A lot of those situations were very difficult because they thought that they could just walk over me because I’m a tenant,” she says. “If I had legal counsel they probably would have got things situated and figured out quicker than when I was just doing it myself… I had to deal with it all on my own. I didn’t have any help.”

A common problem
Wrongful evictions and notices are much more common than one might think, and it is not unique for Coloradans like Ealasha who are facing eviction to be unable to access legal assistance or be forced to take on landlords alone. In a 2017 study of Denver County evictions that occurred from 2014-2016, Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that tenants were only represented by an attorney in 1 to 3 percent of cases, whereas landlords were represented almost 100 percent of the time.

“There are roughly 45,000 evictions filed in Colorado each year, and most tenants facing an eviction are left to navigate the complex legal system by themselves, without the assistance of an attorney.  These evictions frequently destabilize families, disrupt communities and uproot children from their schools,” says Jack Regenbogen, Esq., Senior Attorney at CCLP.

Legislation addresses concerns
These concerns are what motivated CCLP to work towards one of its major legislative successes of 2019: passing Senate Bill 180. The bill created an eviction legal defense fund that would award grants to qualifying nonprofit organizations who provide free or low-cost legal counseling to clients experiencing eviction.

For the 2019-20 state fiscal year, $750,000 in General Funds was appropriated to the eviction legal defense fund. Alongside COVID-19-related budget cuts, however, general funds for the Eviction Legal Defense Fund were cut to $600,000 for FY 2020-21. Now more than ever, this fund has proven to be extremely helpful for eviction legal defense organizations who are working to combat looming and unfathomably high numbers of COVID-19 related evictions. Given the irrepressibly immense role of evictions in contributing to a homelessness and hunger crisis brought on by the pandemic, increased and continued advocacy and funding is needed.

COVID-19 aside, the housing situation in Colorado was already dismal and higher levels of advocacy are long overdue. In the words of Ealasha, “Something has to give. Our housing is way too expensive for the amount of money were getting offered for positions… Something has to balance out. Either the government has to give more funding for housing or we’re going to have to get paid more to be able to live in Colorado.”

Ealasha was connected with CCLP through Clayton Early Learning’s Parent Ambassador Program. Kayla Frawley, who directs the program, states:

 “The Parent Ambassador Program honors the leadership of parents while building skills to engage in state policy and advocacy, offering parents opportunities like public speaking, testifying, writing op-eds in local media, or participating in press conferences and engaging in law making.  Stipends are given to all parents that participate, and childcare reimbursement costs available. We believe parents are the sleeping giants, equipped with natural leadership skills to make change in their communities, schools and state. Please contact Kayla Frawley, kfrawley@claytonearlylearning.org to get involved.  

-By Andra Metcalfe

Recent articles

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 2

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs. Part 2/2.

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 1

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs.

CCLP testifies in support of Clean Slate updates

Bethany Pray, CCLP’s Chief Legal and Policy Officer, provided testimony in support of House Bill 24-1133, Criminal Record Sealing & Expungement Changes. CCLP is in support of HB24-1133, as it is one of our priority bills.

HEALTH:
HEALTH FIRST COLORADO (MEDICAID)

To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.

FOOD SECURITY:
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP)

Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.

FOOD SECURITY:
SPECIAL SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION PROGRAM FOR WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN (WIC)

Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.

EARLY LEARNING:
COLORADO CHILD CARE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (CCCAP)

Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.