Room for Improvement: No Eviction Without Representation on Denver Ballot

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This November's Denver ballot includes Initiative 305, often referred to as No Eviction Without Representation Denver, that would charge landlords a fee of $75 per property annually to fund a program to provide legal aid to people in danger of eviction. But while 305 is on the ballot, don't look in the city's blue book for an explanation of the proposal...it was inadvertently left out.

The new fee would raise about $11,986,875 in the first year, according to one estimate from proponents. The money would go toward hiring lawyers for people facing eviction as well as paying a coordinator for the program. The initiative also calls for the formation of a seven-member tenants’ committee to guide the program; each member would receive $1,000 a year.

According to NEWR Denver's Wren Echo, the Denver Democratic Socialists of America used to provide representation for tenants threatened with eviction and found it an effective way to prevent people from losing their homes — but a state privacy law updated in 2020 put an end to that practice. After Boulder passed a No Eviction Without Representation Initiative that year, Echo and other organizers thought that Denver could use the same protections.

“When we started it, we were eight volunteers,” Echo recalls. “Basically, just random people who had never done anything like this before.” NEWR Denver embarked on their grassroots campaign because there's such a disparity in access to attorneys: Less than 1 percent of renters can access an attorney, while 90 percent of landlords do, they estimate.

About 9,000 evictions were filed each year in Denver before moratoriums during the pandemic drastically decreased that number. According to Echo, 75 percent of renters don’t show up in court to respond, causing judges to automatically issue default judgments without looking into the specifics of the case.

“What would happen instead, if this thing passed, is those people, at the very beginning of the process...they would get in touch with the attorney and hopefully show up to court with a lawyer and do what's called filing an answer, which is basically, you file a defense,” Echo says. “What happens then is usually they negotiate with their landlords to work something out.”

With the aid of a lawyer, people can often work out a repayment plan for past-due rent or get an extended timetable to help the moving-out process go more smoothly and avoid an eviction on their record. NEWR estimates that coming to court with an attorney decreases the chance of a renter being evicted from over 60 percent to just 6 percent.

And that could help prevent some people from becoming homeless. “A lot of people maybe don't think that they would end up in that situation,” Echo says. “If you missed one paycheck, it could be you getting that notice on your door. This would make that much less of a catastrophic situation for people.”

When she's talked with people about the proposal, Echo adds, most have approved of the idea once they understand the connection between eviction and homelessness. “It's been a really widely popular thing that just seems like this really basic reform,” she says. “In a lot of people's minds, they sort of assume we have something like that for eviction, and we don't.”

The initiative has gained support from the ACLU, the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Poverty Law Project, the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, Denver's chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Denver Democrats, the National Lawyers Guild of Colorado, and many more.

The fundraising numbers for the initiative in SearchLight Denver, the campaign finance tracker, show that pro contributions to NEWR total $88,454.34, with $37,300.05 from individual contributions as of October 20. Mary Imgrund, who works on communication for NEWR, says the final number will likely end up over $120,000.

Common Sense Solutions for Denver, the only registered opposition, has raised more than that, including $125,000 from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. There are three main problems with the initiative, according to Drew Hamrick, general counsel and senior vice president of government affairs for that association. “It's way, way, way too expensive,” he says. “The revenue source and funding are not means-tested, so it has a very disproportionate impact on the lowest level of the economy. And, frankly, the program's not necessary.”

People usually don’t show up in court with attorneys because an attorney would be a waste of money in most cases, he says: “If you come to a private attorney and say something along the lines of, ‘You know what, I'm three months behind on my rent and I can't pay it,’ the attorney would likely tell them, ‘Well, the last thing you want to do is pay me a lot of money to go down there and help you lose this case.’”

He also suggests that most cases are settled whether or not the renter has an attorney, and that getting an attorney is just a way for renters to drag out the inevitable. Landlords use evictions as a last resort because they don’t want to pay the cost of an attorney, either, or to get the sheriff to move someone out. The eviction process is actually to the benefit of the renter rather than the landlord, he contends.
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Tenants at the Mint Urban Infinity apartment complex filed a class-action lawsuit last fall because of concerns about conditions.
Hilal Bahcetepe
A study by the Common Sense Institute found that the measure would raise an excess of $7.8 million to $9.8 million over the amount that would actually be needed to hire representation for everyone facing  eviction. “That's important because the ballot measure does not provide a way to right-size the program,” says Evelyn Lim, the Mike A. Leprino fellow for the Common Sense Institute who worked on the study. “It basically says you will raise $75 per [property] and that that tax can go up annually according to inflation, but it never goes down.”

Hamrick points to a current Denver program that pays for legal counsel for people facing evictions who make less than 80 percent of the area median income, which has about $1.2 million in funding. “It's pretty obvious, when you look at the formula, that nobody went through and said, 'Okay, this is the budget we need for the service,'” he says. “These are the number of housing units that are out there. Let's divide our budget by those housing units and come up with a tax. All somebody did here is spitball, and $75 sounds like a reasonable amount of money that doesn't sound so high that it'll jack things up too much.”

The Boulder measure called for a $75 tax per property, and directs excess funds to rental assistance. But Echo says the $75 number was derived from speaking to program managers in other cities. San Francisco has a similar number of evictions to Denver, she notes, and its program uses about $12 million per year.
Both the Common Sense Institute and the Apartment Association say that landlords will likely pass the cost of the fees on to renters. But NEWR counters that by noting that the charge is per property, it averages out to about $6.25 per unit, which is much less than the rent increases most tenants face annually; NEWR estimates that number is close to $200.

But that's not a fair comparison, either, according to Hamrick. Every property incurs a $75 tax whether it’s affordable housing or high-rises. And anyone, regardless of income, can access the program, which would mean the poorest residents will pay more proportionately than the richest residents when the costs are passed down.

Many of these arguments would be in the city's blue book that lists the candidates and the pro and con arguments for the initiatives. But because of an email glitch, the "For Statement" that NEWR Denver submitted wasn't included. Instead, the book says, “No comments were filed by the constitutional deadline.”

According to NEWR's Imgrund, the city’s email server flagged the NEWR email as a potential security risk, though it had communicated with city emails before without experiencing the problem. As a result, NEWR didn’t know that the city hadn’t received the message until it was too late: The city won't send out a correction since it never officially received the message.

To make up for that, volunteers are canvassing more and working on text message notifications for voters that include the "For Statement."

“We know that no matter how many doors we hit, we're not going to be able to talk to all the voters in Denver,” Echo says. “We're not some arm of the Democratic Party, or some giant nonprofit. The reason we're doing this is because it's a movement of renters who are concerned that there aren't enough tenant protections in Colorado.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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