When Mayor Michael Hancock launched a new program to help people pay rent last year, he was met with applause — and calls to do more.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, for example, said at a daylong retreat this week that people facing eviction don’t just need rent money from government programs. They also need legal representation as they face landlords in court, she said.
Now, Kniech and nine other Denver City Council members are moving independently to provide that kind of assistance.
The ten council members are directing $123,600 to pay for legal services through the nonprofit Colorado Legal Services. The money comes from the council members’ individual office budgets and, in one case, a personal contribution. The council members can use their office funds to support public purposes. The identity of the council member who made the personal contribution was not disclosed.
“It’s a community program, not a city program. We pooled all our money,” Kniech said.
Denver expanded its eviction prevention efforts last year. The mayor’s financial aid program provided more than $800,000 and opened up assistance to people with higher incomes. The city also started putting a human services caseworker in court.
“We used to not have anyone in the courtroom providing anything, to anyone,” Kniech said.
But the lack of direct legal assistance, she said, remains a significant gap. “I think that we have a few pieces in the system,” Kniech said on Thursday. “… But you can’t really have a system without an attorney.”
For proof, she pointed to a study of evictions in Denver.
The study, by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that tenants had attorneys in less than 1 percent of local eviction cases. The evictions “disproportionately affect neighborhoods with more people of color and areas of rapid growth and gentrification,” the study stated. Often, they were fighting over a relatively small amount of rent — $200 was the median disputed sum.
And when they did have attorneys, “they usually prevailed,” the researchers wrote. “When tenants had an attorney, they were more likely to stay in their homes, and they had more favorable terms,” Kniech said.
She acknowledged that the new funding could only go so far, anticipating that it will provide assistance for about 200 people in its first six to nine months. That could range from a simple referral to legal representation. This will represent an expansion of services already offered by Colorado Legal Services.
Eventually, the council members hope the legal defense program will become a permanent, city-funded program. The services are expected to become available in March or April, with help from volunteer lawyers.
In an interview, Mayor Hancock said that his office had discussed the idea of giving city money for a similar purpose, but he was concerned about whether providing direct legal assistance would expand the role of government.
“When does it stop? Because you have limited resources,” he said. “I’m not opposed to it, but I want it to be appropriate.”
It’s possible that “you end up changing those lines permanently,” he said, referring to the lines of government’s responsibilities and powers.
The council offices and member contributing to the fund at this point are:
- Robin Kniech
- Paul Kashmann
- Wayne New
- Paul Lopez
- Deborah Ortega
- Albus Brooks
- Stacie Gilmore
- Mary Beth Susman
- Kendra Black
- Rafael Espinoza
At the moment, those not participating are council members Jolon Clark, Chris Herndon and Kevin Flynn, according to a press release from Kniech’s office. Clark’s office did not have the funds to spare after hiring a new aide, he said. Flynn, who was out of state, said he was not told about the plan and would have to review it before making a decision.