Arapahoe County extends legal lifeline to tenants as post-COVID evictions climb

Laura Survine remembers sitting on a curb, half a block from the Aurora home she had lived in for nearly a year, watching her possessions being placed on the front lawn.

Her landlord, a one-time friend who had turned against her, had even gotten a temporary restraining order on Survine, forcing her to watch her own eviction from 100 yards away.

“We had to find a hotel with what little money I had left,” said the 43-year-old single mother, who cares for her own teenage child, a goddaughter in high school and a 6-year-old niece who lost her mother. “It really has been a struggle. It’s so hard.”

As her world came crashing down this past winter, Survine knew nothing about her rights as a tenant and had no way to effectively advocate for herself.

“When you are that desperate — you have children and no family to turn to — what do you do?” she said. “You feel like you are secluded on an island in the middle of nowhere.”

That feeling of abandonment is something Arapahoe County, where evictions are accelerating again after a couple of years of relief brought about by COVID-19 pandemic eviction suspensions, is trying to combat.

Last week, the county launched an Eviction Clinic Pilot Program, through which tenants facing the imminent loss of their home can consult with attorneys to see what options exist to keep a roof over their heads.

The county is paying for the three-year program with $1.5 million from American Rescue Act funding. Lawyers with Colorado Legal Services will be available three mornings a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Friday — at the Arapahoe County Community Services building in Littleton.

The first session was Tuesday. There is no cost to the tenant seeking help.

“We see such a high eviction rate when people don’t have representation,” said Kathy Smith, community resources director for Arapahoe County. “The key here is doing as much as we can to prevent families and individuals from becoming unhoused.”

That is getting harder, as Arapahoe County’s eviction tally begins to approach 300 a month after falling to an average of 162 a month last year and 156 a month in 2020. There were an average of 318 evictions a month in the county in 2019.

“We’re starting to tick back up,” Smith said, noting the end of statewide and federal moratoria on evictions that were put in place at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago. “We see this (program) as a preventative measure.”

Aside from the pandemic’s disruptive impact on work and housing stability, continued price appreciation of metro Denver housing stock for both homeowners and renters has exacerbated matters for those trying to remain housed, said Jon Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services.

Apartment rent payments in metro Denver averaged $1,765 a month in the first quarter of this year, up 3.3% from the fourth quarter 2021 average and 14.4% over the past year, according to the latest survey from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver. In dollar terms, average rents are up $56.94 in the quarter and $222.02 over the past year, according to the survey that was released earlier this month.

A February study from QuoteWizard showed that half of all Colorado renter households spend 30% more of their income on housing costs, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as cost-burdened.

“The real issue is the lack of decent affordable housing in the metro area,” Asher said. “We are the last barrier for a client who is facing eviction and homelessness.”

Arapahoe County’s homeless count more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, climbing to 523 from 245 the previous year, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative’s Point-in-Time Survey.

Asher said his nonprofit organization, which has 75 attorneys and 40 paralegals across 13 offices in Colorado, tries to help clients in various ways. His attorneys may try and work out a settlement agreement with a landlord on behalf of a tenant. Or they may try to procure emergency rental assistance for someone in need.

Sometimes it’s a matter of cleaning up a mess after it’s made.

“We can keep an eviction off someone’s record so they can get housing in the future,” Asher said. “We are of help in letting tenants know their legal rights and responsibilities in a complex system.”

Most importantly, Colorado Legal Services can provide a client with know-how and confidence in court. Asher said while fewer than 5% of tenants typically have legal representation, more than four of five landlords come armed with an attorney.

Colorado Legal Services has partnered with other cities and counties to set up similar eviction clinics in the state, including Denver, Broomfield, Pueblo and Adams County. In Adams County, 85% of 363 households — which encompassed 695 people (including 408 children) — were able to remain sheltered by getting more time to move or by receiving a housing voucher.

Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio teamed up in 2018 with fellow Commissioner Emma Pinter, who at the time was a councilwoman in Westminster, to begin the eviction clinic program in his county.

“As attorneys ourselves, we saw that tenants didn’t know their rights and some unscrupulous landlords were illegally evicting folks,” he said. “Emma and I saw great inequity in the legal eviction process that needed to be addressed.”

It’s a small investment for the societal payoff Adams County gets, O’Dorisio said.

“We absolutely believe programs like this help reduce homelessness and evictions because attorneys from both sides often negotiate solutions allowing tenants to stay longer, establish payment plans, or simply a smoother move out that doesn’t result in an eviction on a tenant’s record,” he said.

Survine, the single mom who has secured a stable home in Aurora with help from Arapahoe County — the county paid for her one-month hotel stay, the deposit on her new home and the first two months of rent — said she would have “jumped all over” the clinic had it been available when she was going through her troubles.

“It was life-changing — I broke down,” Survine said of the assistance she received from the county. “It gave us hope and it allowed us to breathe.”

She hopes that other Arapahoe County residents like her will be able to avoid the predicament she found herself in by getting help before getting submerged in the eviction process.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” Survine said.


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