Help Wanted: Lawyers Needed to Ward Off Eviction Wave
Local organizations offer legal assistance to residents and businesses in distress

by Jessica Folker

An eviction crisis is brewing in Colorado, and local organizations hope lawyers will volunteer to help tenants and small businesses weather the storm.

Headlines have warned of a wave of evictions ever since coronavirus first shut down businesses and workplaces in March. City and statewide eviction moratoria have helped stave off the flood so far, as have various provisions of the CARES Act, including stimulus checks, Small Business Administration loans and the extra unemployment payments that expired at the end of July.

But tenants’ relief may be running out as the future of a second stimulus round and a statewide order that has delayed evictions is set to expire Tuesday.

While renters look to Congress, governors and mayors for relief, attorneys will also be crucial in helping residents and businesses avoid displacement or an eviction mark on their records. Landlords are far more likely to have legal representation during eviction proceedings, and studies show tenants with representation have a better shot at staying in their homes and get more time to move than those without.

DATA AND DEFENSE

More than 390,000 people in Colorado will be at risk of eviction by the end of September, according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, an organization that offers volunteer legal services for Colorado tenants and publishes research on eviction data and projections nationally.

According to CEDP founder Zach Neumann, an attorney with a background in data, economics and management consulting, the group began in March on Facebook, where he saw several posts from people struggling to pay their rent.

“I put a message up and I was like, ‘Hey, if anyone is worried about paying the rent, drop me a note. I’m happy to help you,’” he said. “I got an incredible number of messages — a shocking number. And I said, ‘Wow, there’s something really here.’”

Since then, CEDP has grown to a full-time staff of six or seven and around 50 active volunteers, including volunteer attorneys. “We’ve got a lot of people working on this, but the need is pretty infinite,” Neumann said. CEDP does weekly trainings for pro bono attorneys, pairs volunteers with clients and provides ongoing coaching.

If a tenant hasn’t paid rent, having an attorney won’t usually prevent eviction, Neumann said, because “there’s not a lot of defenses when you’re a non-paying tenant in Colorado.” But it can make the difference in avoiding an eviction on their record, he said, and clients with representation often end up with better financial outcomes, such as fewer bills going to collections and debts settled at lower amounts.

“Most people who are coming to us for services have so many things to worry about,” Neumann said, such as finding work, arranging childcare and navigating public benefits programs. “If they have a lawyer who can explain things to them, they spend a lot less time turning their wheels trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Neumann expects the number of eviction cases to build slowly, noting eviction filings are a trailing indicator because a landlord doesn’t file until the demand period is over. But a “really substantial percentage” of tenants just decide to move out when they see a rent demand notice on their door, he said, and the landlord never has to file for eviction.

An executive order from Gov. Jared Polis set to expire Tuesday has extended the notification period from 10 days to 30 days. According to Neumann, the measure has helped slow down evictions, but the best way to address the looming crisis would be putting money into renters’ pockets as part of the next round of federal coronavirus relief.

“This helps everybody. It helps landlords. It helps tenants… Money solves 80% of the problem here in a lot of cases,” Neumann said.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

Residents aren’t the only ones facing eviction. Small businesses are also at risk of losing their homes as pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns have eaten into their ability to pay rent and other operating costs.

Free legal help is available to small businesses through ColoradoCOVIDRelief.org, a partnership formed by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, the Colorado Lawyers Committee and partners from WilmerHale and Davis Graham & Stubbs.

The group launched its site in June, and by mid-July had seen a “demonstrable uptick” in applications seeking eviction relief, said WilmerHale  partner Keith Trammell. The organization also offers legal help for other COVID-related business issues, including bankruptcy.

“Right now, eviction issues comprise roughly a third of the client needs for the small business owners that are seeking assistance from us, and we expect that number to continue to grow,” Trammell said.

As part of the organization’s eviction-focused legal aid efforts, Sherman & Howard members Mark Williams and Rebecca Fischer hosted a webinar Aug. 6 on eviction strategies for small businesses with advice on how to negotiate with landlords to avoid eviction and an explanation of the eviction process in Colorado.

On Aug. 20, the group will host a virtual eviction assistance clinic. Business owners will be paired with volunteer lawyers over Zoom, where they’ll talk about any eviction issues they’re facing.

ColoradoCOVIDRelief.org currently has more than 100 pro bono lawyers, and more are needed, according to Trammell and Williams, including for the upcoming clinic. The organization offers legal assistance on issues ranging from insurance and real estate matters to employment law and workplace safety.

“Our efforts to recruit attorneys are very broad, and we’ve been very thankful to see a number of lawyers who don’t have obvious skills sets in the areas that we’re looking for also raise their hands,” Trammell said, adding demand for legal services stretches across the state, from Trinidad to Ft. Collins to Grand Junction.

According to Williams, there are no current restrictions on eviction for commercial tenants under Colorado law. A statewide eviction moratorium covered both residential and commercial tenants, but that expired in June, and Williams said the governor’s latest executive order extending the notification period to 30 days doesn’t explicitly cover commercial properties.

When it comes to avoiding eviction, market uncertainties might offer more leverage for businesses than orders from the governor.

“Realistically, there is an incentive for a landlord to try to work something out right now. Because if the commercial tenant goes, who are you going to get?” Williams said. “So it behooves everybody to try to work something out.”

This article appears in the Aug. 10 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other complete articles from that issue, order a copy online.