As the COVID pandemic recedes, leaving some renters awash in debt, Denver City Council could soon throw out a lifeline: a new eviction legal defense program.
"This is a critical moment for renters everywhere who have yet to find stable footing after a year of compounding unpaid rent debt due to COVID19," explains Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who is co-sponsoring the proposal to establish a right to eviction legal defense for renters making 80 percent or less of the area median income. "It signals to Denver renters a shift in how this city will protect them, in a state where most of our laws privilege landlords."
"We just want to level the playing field a little bit and make sure there's potential to negotiate better outcomes for everyone, especially our residents," says Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, the measure's co-sponsor.
CdeBaca and Sawyer estimate that the program would cost around $4 million annually; it would be funded by federal pandemic relief money during the first three and a half years of operation. Denver has had an eviction legal defense fund pilot program in place since mid-2018, but because of a lack of funding, it's only been able to provide attorneys for a fraction of indigent individuals facing eviction.
City council will vote on the proposal during its June 7 meeting. If the proposal passes, it will take effect in September. Some renters want it now.
Under an executive order recently extended by Governor Jared Polis through the end of June, landlords must give 30 days' notice, rather than the standard ten-day notice, before an eviction can be filed for nonpayment of rent. The executive order also mandates that landlords provide a list of resources to renters when initiating an eviction. However, Polis let an eviction moratorium expire, so the State of Colorado has had nothing in place beyond the federal moratorium instituted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is currently the subject of legal challenges. That moratorium prevents eviction of renters who can exhibit that they've experienced a COVID-related financial hardship, are trying but cannot afford to pay rent, and have exhausted other options for obtaining relief. But plenty of people facing evictions don't qualify under the CDC moratorium requirements, and there's no guarantee of legal help under its provisions.
The Colorado Center on Law and Policy and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless studied eviction cases from 2001 to 2017 and found that landlords lawyered up in 89 percent of the cases, while tenants had legal counsel less than 1 percent of the time.
"The few renters who are able to obtain legal assistance are much more likely to negotiate an outcome that allows them to remain housed, have more time to move or, at minimum, avoid an adverse judgment from being entered on their record," says Jack Regenbogen, a senior attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
The individuals served by Denver's pilot program in 2018 had largely positive results, according to Sawyer. While 70 percent still moved, they did not receive a judgment against them, and 28 percent wound up staying in their residences without a judgment; 2 percent did receive a judgment and had to leave their homes.
A judgment against a renter can have major repercussions for an individual. "That eviction that's on the credit report is what is so destabilizing for housing in the future," says Sawyer.
The proposed ordinance has at least one major opponent.
“This ordinance desires to use federal emergency relief money to subsidize lawsuits instead of assist those with COVID-related financial hardships at a time when homeowners, rental housing providers and residents are all struggling to recover. This ordinance is taking away the very funding that could keep residents housed and rental housing providers afloat," the Colorado Apartment Association says in a statement.
And while the No Eviction Without Representation Denver campaign, which is pushing its own proposal for the November ballot, supports Sawyer and CdeBaca's attempts to establish a right to eviction legal defense, the group says it has "serious concerns" about the ordinance language.
In particular, NEWR Denver takes issue with the ordinance's limitation of legal services to people who make 80 percent or less of the area median income. "NEWR opposes means testing for Right to Counsel because we know adding qualifiers to a public program means barriers to every person accessing the program," the campaign says, adding that this stipulation could be especially exclusionary for undocumented tenants. NEWR Denver says it's also worried about the lack of a specific, longterm funding source for the program.
The NEWR Denver ballot measure would take care of those issues. Members of the Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America are gathering signatures right now for a proposal to create a universal eviction legal defense fund that would place a $75 tax on every residential rental unit in the city, potentially generating up to $12 million in its first year. If the proponents submit 9,184 valid signatures to the Denver Elections Division by early July, voters will see the measure on the November 2021 ballot.
Sawyer opposes that proposal. "It doesn’t jibe with our city processes very well, and that’s the problem," she says, noting that it might interfere with the implementation of the eviction legal defense ordinance and the establishment of the licensing system recently approved by council.
CdeBaca, on the other hand, supports the ballot initiative, which would give all Denver residents facing eviction access to a legal defense, regardless of income. But the councilwoman points out that "the process of gathering signatures and getting the initiative before voters on the November ballot has a longer timeline. The bill we're bringing to committee was drafted with the purpose of getting it passed in council expeditiously."
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