Thousands of Denverites facing evictions could get access to an attorney

It’s like your right to an attorney for criminal matters, but for housing.
5 min. read
Kevin Breidenbach and Luke Wierman post signs to tents as the Denver Democratic Socialists of America protest rent and evictions as the economy continues to struggle under the pandemic. July 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Evictions can not only be emotionally traumatic but can forever prohibit someone from renting again, said Denver City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca. That's why she wants to give certain Denverites facing eviction the right to free legal representation in court proceedings, which she said would greatly reduce a person's chances of getting kicked out of their home.

"If you have an eviction on your record, a judgment, it is so hard to ever rent again, because when a landlord does your background check, they can see that, and that is a high-risk tenant," CdeBaca said. "And most landlords aren't going to take that risk."

CdeBaca estimates the bill could help as many as 5,000 people a year. She said she's made concessions to make sure her colleagues on council would support it. For example, CdeBaca had originally intended for the bill to provide free legal representation for everyone. But the cost to fund the program could have been prohibitive, so the bill makes anyone earning 80 percent or less of the area median income ($54,950 for a one-person household in Denver) eligible for free legal representation.

Co-sponsored by Councilmember Amanda Sawyer, the bill will be heard at council's safety and housing committee Wednesday. If it passes the committee it will head to the full council for a vote.

While the pandemic prompted statewide and local eviction moratoriums (with caveats), evictions continued last year.

A spokesperson for the Denver Sheriff Department, which enforces evictions, said the city completed 731 evictions between March 5, 2020, and March 17, 2021. (The city carried out 818 evictions in 2020 alone.) Denver is still under an eviction moratorium through June 30, though some are allowed to continue for certain violations. So far this year Denver has carried out 341 evictions.

City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca weighs in during a meeting with the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council hosted by the National Western Authority, Sept. 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

At least 3,912 requests for evictions were filed in Denver County Court all of last year, according to data provided by the court. It's far less than in 2019, when 9,249 were filed. More than 1,500 requests for evictions have been filed this year as of April. Also as of that month, more than 6,000 evictions have been filed across the state after the statewide moratorium expired on Jan. 1, according to Colorado Newsline (this figure doesn't include Denver numbers).

University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Nantiya Ruan said this "eviction tsunami" makes legislation like the kind proposed by CdeBaca even more important.

Last year, 1,800 plaintiffs -- that is, people who requested evictions -- were represented by an attorney in Denver courts, but just 41 people who were facing evictions were represented by an attorney, according to figures provided by the court.

Ruan, who teaches homeless advocacy, said people who represent themselves during eviction proceedings often aren't familiar with the laws that protect their rights.

"The right to counsel is extraordinarily important, especially for those who don't have any experience in the legal system," Ruan said.

Since 2018, the city has sponsored an eviction defense pilot program that gives people free legal help provided by Colorado Legal Services. Its goals are basically the same as those of CdeBaca's bill: to help people stay in housing and minimize future barriers for those who end up being evicted.

The Denver Democratic Socialists of America stage tents in front of the Capitol to protest rent and evictions as the economy continues to struggle under the pandemic. July 1, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

CdeBaca's bill would replace this program, which she said has been successful in helping people stay housed. But she said most people don't learn about the program until they show up to court. CdeBaca said data suggests most people facing evictions skip court altogether, choosing instead to self-evict.

"(My bill) is designed specifically to plug the hole in the pipeline to homelessness," CdeBaca said. "This is for our most vulnerable population. This is for our people hardest hit by COVID, who could not pay rent."

The bill would require the Denver Department of Housing Stability to choose a contractor to provide legal services.

"If passed and if funding becomes available through the annual budget process, HOST" -- as the department is known -- "would potentially leverage its procurement processes and current legal assistance contracts to implement the proposal," housing department spokesperson Derek Woodbury said in a statement. "Regardless of the outcomes of council's proposal, HOST plans to continue providing eviction legal defense support to households in need."

CdeBaca said the program would cost the city an estimated $4 million a year. She anticipates 80 percent of eligible people would use the program.

Public support for the bill has already started surfacing. During Monday's City Council public comment session, several people spoke in favor of the proposal, even though it wasn't scheduled to be voted on or even being discussed by lawmakers during that night's meeting. Some people didn't think the bill went far enough.

"We know how expensive it is to live in the city," said Lucas Dan, a renter in CdeBaca's district who supports her bill. "City government should provide for everyone when they are in need."

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