Mary Ellen Epps is everybody's look-alike idea of the perfect grandmother. The Republican state senator from Colorado Springs is not only smart, she is also caring and usually successful. As one lobbyist for the governor put it: "Mary Ellen doesn't ask for much; what she wants, she gets."
But Sen. Epps met her match this March in lobbyist Freda Poundstone, who I have always pictured as the wicked queen in the story of Snow White.
Sen. Epps, shaken by viewing a Colorado Springs TV documentary entitled "Hall of Shame", introduced SB 118 "Concerning Landlord And Tenant Relations". The bill was a modest attempt to allow tenants (such as families of soldiers stationed in El Paso county) unaware of major defects in the space they were renting, to terminate the lease fifteen days after the landlord is notified and fails to remedy the defect.
Major defects, according to her bill, were what usually lets a city or county claim violations of health department codes: No heat, no hot water, plumbing stop-up, rats, cockroaches. If the defect substantially interferes with living on the premises, and is not repaired, the contract could be broken.
The Epps bill would have created a "warranty of habitability" for leased premises. That means a person has a right to rent a space fit for a human being to live in. Wyoming has a warranty of habitability statute. Colorado is one of only two states without such a warranty for tenants. The other is Arkansas.
Animals in Colorado have a statutory right to have a place fit for an animal to live in. But tenants do not.
SB 118 passed the Senate with only Bruce Cairns, Republican senator from Aurora voting "no". In the House it passed out of Business Affairs with some opposition.
Mrs. Poundstone, who represents the Apartment Owners Association, was sitting outside the committee room while SB 118 was being debated. I asked her "why aren't you in that room checking your votes" and she replied, with a twinkle in her eye "I know where my votes are."
When SB 118 came to the floor of the House for second reading debate, the Republicans pounced upon Epps' co-sponsor, Democrat Rep. Bryan Jameson of Ft. Collins. "This is a home rule issue that should be handled by cities and counties" and "freedom of contract should not be interfered with". Well, the state does presently interfere with landlord-tenant leases, giving landlords certain rights despite the terms of the contract.
One statute provides an implied term of the lease: The tenant shall not commit a substantial violation while in possession of the premises, such as a crime or a public nuisance and the tenant can be forced out in three days. But if the landlord commits a crime or a public nuisance on the premises, the tenant is still bound by the lease.
There are 38 Republicans and 27 Democrats in the House. The vote to kill SB 118 was 36 to 27, with one Democrat absent. Thirty-four Republicans and two Democrats voted to kill the bill. The four Republicans who voted with Sen. Epps were Reps. Cloer, Decker, Larson, and Sinclair. The two Democrats who voted "no" were Reps. Chavez and Jahn.
The Epps bill wasn't a strong bill. As one tenant rights supporter was heard saying: "Even if its January and the heat is out and the place is totally uninhabitable after 24 hours. Even if you have no working toilet. Or no water. You can leave. That's it."
Most landlords are decent landlords and the Epps bill was not aimed at them. They are already doing what the Epps bill required. In a
period when vacancies are high, the Epps bill could have influenced some slumlords to make repairs. But when housing is tight, the slumlord can state: What's the point of repairing? There is a waiting list of people who want to rent this property.
Since 1975, almost all of the dead landlord-tenant bills have been on Mrs. Poundstone's plate, including several of mine. SB 192, a stronger landlord-tenant bill written by the conservative National Commissioners on Uniform State Laws has been introduced by Sen. Bill Thiebaut of Pueblo. Will it be another triumphant meal for Mrs. Poundstone?
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado legislature.)
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel