Elise Dantzler has been working in restaurants since she was 15. But, like many in her industry, she was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That forced the 25-year-old Coloradan to rethink her living situation.
"I have a Subaru Forester and I built a little sleeping platform, so I could camp really easily. I thought, 'Well, I can live out of my car for a little bit,'" Dantzler said.
Luckily, she managed to find a room at a price she could afford on her limited savings, but she still needs to find a job. She had an interview lined up at UPS, but it was delayed while she awaited results of a COVID-19 test. Instead of just a few days, it took eight, which cost her that job.
"If I had gotten my test sooner, I would have this job right now," she said.
She may not be on the street, but millions of others may not be as lucky. According to the non-profit think tank The Aspen Institute, between 19 and 23 million renters nationwide are vulnerable to eviction by the end of September. In Colorado, nearly 420,000 individuals are at risk of eviction, according to The Bell Policy Center.
The eviction moratorium passed by Congress under the original COVID-19 relief bill has expired, and an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Saturday only directs federal agencies to explore how they can help avoid mass evictions across the country.
"I really hate that so many of us are in this position of choosing to risk our health and our lives just to make a paycheck right now," Dantzler said. "It shouldn't be that way."
Emily Benfer agrees. She's a law professor at Wake Forest University and co-creator of the Eviction Lab, which tracks and studies evictions throughout the country.
"The lack of stable and safe housing disrupts every aspect of a person's life, from employment to social networks to education to the receipt of social benefits," Benfer said.
Benfer said evictions ultimately lead to more emergency shelter, increased medical and emergency room care, and child welfare services.
"Basically, when we don't prevent eviction, we're passing the cost of that off to all these other systems," she said.
Benfer is also concerned with the health implications of eviction. She said aside from stress and anxiety, evictions can also lead to cardiovascular disease, and increased rates of drug use and teen pregnancy. That's because people who are evicted often move to substandard housing in poorer neighborhoods, which she says has been shown to have links to negative health outcomes including respiratory disease.
"In a pandemic where respiratory disease is actually a compounding factor for complications with COVID-19, that's especially relevant," Benfer said.
Keeping people housed also makes sense economically, according to Vivek Sah, director of the Lied Center for Real Estate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He says landlords can be better off forgiving rents and keeping units occupied, especially during times of high unemployment.
"So it's not that there's a waiting list out there, which would be a different situation where you could say, 'I'm going to evict you, because I have somebody waiting,'" he said.
Sah says if owners want to sell their properties later on, it's better to have fuller occupancy. Plus, helping with rent can also help maintain relationships with tenants.
"You have this kind of a pandemic that is affecting everybody," he said. "As an option, what do you do? You evict assuming that there is demand, but demand itself is slowing down. There's not very [many] options, so you're probably better off forgiving the rent."
But what about landlords who can't afford to do that? Destiny Bossert is with the Colorado Apartment Association, which represents more than 3,000 landlords and property managers.
"Our smaller landlords, I think there are several people that are at risk of losing their property, and so not being able to evict and collect rent is really hurting some of our smaller landlords," she said.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 46% of all rental units are owned by individual investors, not companies. Bossert says landlords don't want to evict. It's just an unfortunate necessity.
"It's really the last thing we want to do," she said. "We want to keep residents in their home. It takes money to turn these apartments. It takes money to go through the court process."
Bossert says the process can take two to three months and cost upwards of $3,000. All the while, that unit isn't generating revenue.
"Months of lost rent is going to cripple our industry's ability to help those residents who truly need it, protect our communities, pay our employees, and meet our own financial obligations," she said.
That's because landlords often have a mortgage to pay. The federal government has halted certain foreclosures through August 31, and is offering a 180-day mortgage suspension for those affected financially by COVID-19.
'It feels really demeaning'
For the last two years, Gregg Haulman has been living in a six-bedroom duplex in Lakewood, Colorado, with his wife, four daughters, son-in-law, grandchild and mother-in-law all. Then the pandemic struck.
"Where do I even begin to start?" Haulman asked.
Haulman's work hours were reduced, his wife was laid off, and then they got behind on bills.
"I had a good credit score," he said. "I was getting ready to buy a house. I had a 670, I think, and they were going to work with me. And that's right when COVID hit. I couldn't pay my credit card, I couldn't pay this, couldn't pay that, so my credit just shot way down."
Since then, Haulman, his wife, and three of his daughters have been bouncing around from place to place, crashing on couches where they can. All the while, they've been separated from the rest of their extended family.
"We've looked at trailers," he said. "We've looked at RVs. We've looked at trailer parks. We've looked at anywhere I can fit my family. Because we're tired of being split up."
He said they had tried to work out a plan with the landlord of their original duplex, but its management was taken over by a separate company, which wanted them out.
Since then, his college-aged daughters have stopped doing their classes online, because they don't have computers or a place to work right now. Everyone ended up losing about half of their stuff, including family heirlooms.
"I'm not holding up worth a crap," he said. "Sorry, excuse my language, but I'm not holding up very good. The only thing that I ever wanted to do was provide for my daughters, and it's just really, it feels really demeaning. You feel really low when something like this happens, especially when you were doing just fine."
Haulman said he's also noticed a trend of people setting up home in tents throughout his community. That's something that's caught the attention of Desiree Kane, too.
"I moved out into Longmont and the trailheads all along the Front Range, there's families living along the trail heads, because that way they have access to water," she said.
Kane said the pandemic seems to be forcing people to rethink what housing means to them.
"It's kind of like an existential moment with yourself around the meaning of home," she said. "How do you find home when you are houseless?"
Kane does mostly freelance work, which has been halted because of the pandemic. So she's had to rethink her own housing. She recently moved into a more affordable apartment with several other people.
However, in a pandemic, more affordable can also mean more risk. Nicole LaMarti was in need of a room and found a potential roommate on Facebook. Then, right before moving in, that roommate tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
"I told her, I said, 'Listen this puts a huge change into my plans. I need to figure something else out, because there's no way I'm going to jeopardize my health, move in with you and get sick,'" LaMarti said.
She hadn't put any money down on the place, but she did sign the lease. She said the property managers wanted the rent, but she used that money for rent at her old place while she waited until it was safe to move into their building.
"I don't have the money. I told them, I said, 'Listen, you can't squeeze blood out of a rock,'" she said.
LaMarti said she even found another girl to take over the lease she signed, but they still said no. If she doesn't pay rent, she faces an eviction on her record.
"There needs to be more leniency right now, because things are happening right now that people cannot control. And we're getting hunted down because of that. If the leasing office was more lenient, we wouldn't be having this problem," LaMarti said.
'Go talk to a lawyer and see what your options are'
President Trump recently directed federal agencies to explore how they can help avoid mass evictions across the country, but it's unclear if or how that will help. Still, there are people on the state and local levels coming up with solutions.
Count Zach Neumann among them. He's a lawyer in Colorado, who saw the eviction crisis coming and wanted to help. He put up a Facebook message a while back offering his legal services to free for anyone who was facing eviction.
He didn't think much of it, went to bed, and then the next day logged on and saw about 500 messages.
"I was like, 'Wow. There is something here,'" Neumann said.
So, he started the Colorado COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. It connects people facing eviction with pro bono lawyers. It also created a fund to help people pay rent.
"You see in these cases where folks are evicted, that when someone loses their housing, everything starts to go wrong," Neumann said. "It's harder to keep your job, your kids' performance in school – if they can even stay in school – goes down. Your health gets worse."
Neumann thinks the solution is simple: Give people money now. In the meantime, he's hoping that by providing free legal services to renters, he might be able to help stave off at least some evictions.
"When you get that first piece of paper, don't just move out," he advises. "Go talk to a lawyer and see what your options are."
That might not be happening enough. One study from the University of Wisconsin, Madison estimates that in eviction court hearings, landlords have legal representation about 90% of the time. Meanwhile, tenants are represented about 10% of the time.
That's a problem Ruy Arango is also trying to solve. He helped create a citizen-led initiative that he says will be on the November ballot in Boulder, Colo.
"It is going to provide free legal counsel to every single tenant who experiences eviction in the city of Boulder, regardless of age, immigration or income," Arango said. "So that means literally, if you are evicted, you have the right to a free attorney."
Arango first heard of the idea after San Francisco passed a similar measure in late 2018. He thought it would be great in his city of Boulder, where he noticed evictions were on the rise.
"A lot of folks think of places that are predominately white, like Boulder, and that have a reputation as being wealthy places where people don't experience these hardships. That's all incorrect," he said.
If the initiative gets voter approval in November, it will charge landlords $75 per year per unit. That money would then be used for legal services, eviction education and even some rent relief for tenants, including those who are undocumented.
Arango said he hopes this is just the beginning.
"We're hoping that this takes off nationwide, because the eviction epidemic is a nationwide epidemic, and we need more of these programs all throughout the country," he said.
An eviction epidemic is not just sparking grassroots initiatives. In Nevada, the treasurer's office recently launched a rent relief program, which takes funds from the first federal stimulus program and gives them directly to renters in need.
"This is a grant program, not a loan program," said Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine. "So, money goes out the door. We are not expecting, nor do we want, people to pay it back. We want them to be able to get on with their lives."
Any household that makes 120% of the annual median income of the area (or less) qualifies. Conine says, based on the average Nevada rent, there are enough funds to cover 25,000 months' worth of rent.
"It's until we run out of money, and then we're going to fight as hard as we can to get more money from the federal government," he explained.
Treasurer's offices don't typically get involved with housing matters, but Conine says it's all about making the right investments during this historic time.
"We're about taking an amount of money, putting it into a good idea, allowing it to grow and allowing that growth to help people," he said. "And in this case, the best thing we can do from an investment perspective is diving in to help on the economic recovery side."
What those investments look like is up for debate. But with tens of millions of renters vulnerable to eviction, some kind of assistance will be needed to avoid mass homelessness.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.