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How A Voter-Approved Program In Boulder Could Drastically Reduce Evictions

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Matt Bloom/KUNC News
William Quinn, 14, stands in front of a pile of his family's belongings outside their home in Brighton. The family was evicted on June 23, about a week after Colorado's original eviction moratorium expired.

Boulder voters on Tuesday backed a measure to create a new city-run program providing free legal counsel to renters during eviction proceedings, becoming the sixth city in the country to do so.

The result was a win for tenant advocate groups, who say the program evens the playing field between landlords and low-income tenants – many of whom never seek legal help during evictions.

Ruy Arango, chair for the No Eviction Without Representation (NEWR) campaign, said the program was modeled after other efforts around the country that have reduced eviction rates among low-income residents.

“The people of Boulder have decided to take a stand against housing insecurity and the violence of eviction,” Arango said. “We’re happy.”

Once created, the program’s staff will pair renters facing eviction with a city-appointed lawyer at no cost. A portion of the program will also provide direct financial assistance to some tenants.

According to language for Ballot Issue 2B, it will be funded through a new $75 fee on Boulder landlords. It’s expected to cost $1.9 million a year to operate.

The idea of providing public legal counsel to tenants has been gaining steam across the country in recent years. City leaders in New York City, Philadelphia and Cleveland have established their own programs. Voters in San Francisco approved a “right-to-counsel” program in 2018.

According to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Community Service Society in New York, 84% of tenants represented through the city’s program that year avoided an eviction.

“(This idea) is hugely popular right now,” said John Pollock, a coordinator with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an organization that advocates for right-to-counsel programs around the country. “I could list to you two dozen jurisdictions we’re in conversations with that want to follow these cities.”

It’s unclear how many evictions Boulder’s new program will prevent. But renter advocates say having a lawyer makes a huge difference for tenants who often don’t understand complex legal discussions that take place during evictions.

Zach Neumann, an attorney with the Colorado COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, said legal counsel can help renters settle debt, avoid marks on their record and “just have more options” during eviction proceedings.

“You’re more likely to have the case thrown out or win the case,” Neumann said. “Even if you aren’t going to win the case, you can negotiate more effectively (with a lawyer).”

In Boulder, local landlords also appeared to welcome the idea of the new program.

“We are pleased there will be additional resources for those residents in need,” said Todd Ulrich, president of the board of directors for the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association. “(We) sincerely hope this effort will produce the intended results.”

By Wednesday afternoon, 59% of ballots cast were in favor of Issue 2B, according to unofficial results from the Boulder County Elections Division. Voters also decided on local ballot measures related to energy and mayoral elections.

Opposition to the eviction prevention ballot issue was minimal. The Boulder Daily Camera’s editorial board recommended residents vote against the measure, stating additional fees on landlords could exacerbate the area’s housing affordability issues.

“Landlords are almost certain to pass the $75-and-climbing tax along to their tenants,” wrote Blake Fontenay, contributor to the board. “And if landlords feel they’re more likely to end up in court as a result of 2B, they’re likely to factor those expenses into their costs of doing business and build that into their rent charges as well.”

Issue 2B’s passage comes as Colorado courts are processing fewer eviction cases overall this year, mostly due to state and federal eviction moratoriums in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. Those are set to expire at the end of 2020.

Tenant advocates worry tens of thousands of residents could be at risk of eviction without more economic aid. Data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University also shows lower-income women and people of color carry a disproportionate risk of being evicted.

According to a city spokeswoman, Boulder city staff have already begun discussing how to implement their new right-to-counsel program. The ballot measure requires the city to have the program up and running within a year after the election.

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