She Faced An Eviction. In Boulder, A Lawyer Helped Her Out Of It, For Free
The economic impacts of the pandemic have put a spotlight on housing instability, as Coloradans struggle to pay rent. A new program in Boulder aims to help tenants through housing instability by avoiding eviction.
On a recent morning in Boulder County eviction court, Christie DeFurio arrived feeling powerless.
The 39-year-old single mom had found a summons taped to her front door three weeks prior. She was confused about why she was being kicked out of her Louisville apartment, given the protection she had from the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium.
She also felt embarrassed to be there. Until the pandemic economy stole her job selling insurance, she had never been the kind of person who couldn’t pay their bills, she said. Still, she had questions about her case, and she wanted to fight it.
As she took a seat on one of Courtroom B’s wooden benches, DeFurio prepared to represent herself. A feeling in the pit of her stomach told her she might lose her housing that day. That she might end up homeless.
But when the judge called her name, DeFurio felt the tone in the room shift.
“I want to talk to you about what your options are,” the judge said, smiling underneath her colorful cloth mask.
The judge pointed to the back of the room, where a man in a navy suit was waving his hand. She explained that he was a lawyer. And he was there to represent her — for free.
“If you’re interested in that at all, I’ll make sure he knows,” the judge said.
DeFurio was shocked. She looked at the lawyer, then back at the judge.
“Yeah, that would be great,” she said.
The lawyer belonged to a new program the City of Boulder has launched to help renters get access to valuable legal help.
Boulder voters greenlit the program — the first of its kind in Colorado — last November when they passed Ballot Issue 2B. The measure created an annual $75 per-unit tax on local landlords to fund lawyer fees. It’s also helping pay for more financial assistance for some tenants.
Advocates say the city’s program addresses a longstanding power imbalance between landlords and renters in court. Research shows most tenants never seek legal counsel when facing an eviction, due to the cost and lack of knowledge of the process. Many never even show up to their court date.
The results of losing an eviction case can be devastating. Renters who get evicted often struggle to find new housing. As a result, they’re more likely to lose their jobs and become homeless. The cycle disproportionately impacts communities of color.
“The idea of coming to the courthouse, where there are deputies and lawyers, is tremendously intimidating and overwhelming,” said Thom Ward, one of the local attorneys hired by Boulder’s new program. “I think a lot of tenants think there’s nothing that can be done for them.”
But there is. Having a lawyer gives renters negotiating power, Ward said. Attorneys can identify procedural mistakes that landlords sometimes make. They can also point renters toward financial assistance programs they may not be aware of, or pair them with social services.
To access Boulder’s program, renters just have to show up to their county court date. They can also fill out a form online.
The need is urgent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates more than 8 million people nationwide are behind on rent, even as the economy starts to rebound from the pandemic. Colorado currently has a backlog of over 20,000 requests for emergency rental assistance.
Eviction cases in Boulder County are down overall from pre-pandemic times, thanks to emergency rental assistance and eviction moratoriums. But many believe programs like Boulder’s could be helpful in stemming a potential “tsunami” of evictions once those protections go away.
“There’s no way to know how many landlords are out there waiting to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent,” Ward said. “But it feels meaningful.”
Suppressing cases is key
In the hallway outside of Courtroom B, DeFurio and Ward, her new lawyer, sat on a couch to discuss her case. Like many, DeFurio’s was complicated.
Early on in the pandemic, her employer let her go. She hadn’t been able to find steady work since then, so she and her property manager struck up a payment plan.
The arrangement worked out until early February, when something happened that threw everything off.
On a Sunday afternoon, DeFurio took one of her 10-year-old son’s toy guns — an orange rifle — and shot plastic pellets out of her bedroom window toward a family friend. She said it was a harmless prank. But neighbors complained.
The property manager investigated the next day, finding loose pellets in the parking lot.
They concluded the incident was a “substantial violation” of DeFurio’s lease, according to court documents. That condition wasn’t protected under the CDC’s moratorium. Because of that, her landlord wanted her out.
KUNC reached out to DeFurio’s apartment complex, North Main at Steel Ranch in Louisville, and their attorney, but didn’t hear back.
Ward advised DeFurio she could take the case to trial if she wanted, she said. But if she lost, her landlord could proceed with an eviction immediately. She could have less than 48 hours to move out.
Meanwhile, she also owed over $10,000 in back rent, which the landlord could also evict her for once the CDC’s moratorium expires. DeFurio said she has started the application process for government rental assistance to help pay back the debt.
Alternatively, she could make a deal: Move out by April 15, which was more than a month away at the time, and no formal eviction would take place. Her court case would also be suppressed, meaning it wouldn’t show up on DeFurio’s record as she searched for new housing.
She wrestled with the decision. She’d lived in the apartment for three years and built a home there. She thought of what was best for her future.
She went with the deal to move out early.
“I felt like I had to do it, to be honest with you,” she said.
Ward couldn’t comment on the specifics of DeFurio’s case, due to attorney-client privilege. But he said in cases like DeFurio’s, he can often help negotiate similar deals to get cases suppressed. He’s more limited in what he can accomplish with more straightforward nonpayment of rent situations, though.
Once the CDC’s moratorium goes away, the program’s financial assistance arm will be the most helpful tool for renters, he said.
“Working my entire legal career with landlords, most are happy if the rent is getting paid and the tenants are not causing trouble,” Ward said. “When the CDC moratorium goes away, this program will be even more important.”
Similar programs effective, but landlords wary
Boulder’s program is one of a few so-called “right-to-counsel” programs across the country specifically aimed at helping renters.
City leaders in New York City, Philadelphia and Cleveland have established similar resources. Voters in San Francisco approved a “right-to-counsel” program for housing court in 2018. A campaign to start one in Denver recently launched.
Research shows they’re effective. According to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Community Service Society in New York, 84% of tenants represented by a city-appointed lawyer that year avoided an eviction on their record. Conclusive data from the Boulder program is not yet available.
“(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 across the country. “I think that the pandemic certainly elevated the impact of evictions for everyone.”
Several Boulder landlords that KUNC spoke with agreed that financial assistance was a helpful way to keep renters housed. But some expressed concerns about the new program’s $75 per-unit annual tax for property managers.
Tim Bentz, a property manager who rents over 350 apartment units in Boulder, said the tax would add up to around $30,000 in extra expenses each year.
“We’re not going to pass that along to our tenants, but some landlords are going to do that,” Bentz said. “That defeats the purpose of what Boulder’s all about right now and that’s affordable housing.”
Other than the cost, Bentz worried that free legal aid could help tenants skirt accountability for dangerous behavior. In March, he tried to evict a tenant that threatened to harm the staff of his company, Boardwalk Realty.
The situation escalated after several failed attempts to rectify it, Bentz said. At eviction court, the tenant gained access to legal representation through the city’s new program. At first, Bentz worried the renter would find a way to win his case and stay put.
But it ended up working out in the landlord’s favor. With the help of the city’s lawyer, Bentz struck an agreement that included the tenant moving out by the end of March.
“Knowing the tenant would get removed was a big deal for me,” Bentz said. “I think it was a good situation in the long run.”
Finding a new home is easier, but challenges remain
At her apartment in Louisville, Christie DeFurio is beginning the move-out process.
Even though her move-out date isn’t for a little while, she’s already packed a few cardboard boxes and placed them near the front door.
She says she wants to remember the good parts of living here. The hallway just off the kitchen is covered in drawings she and her 10-year-old son, who is living with family at this time, made during the past three years. There’s a big, blue octopus. A pink lotus flower grows up from the baseboard.
Everything on the wall represents something that’s been traumatic in her family’s life that they’ve worked past, she said. For her, the eviction case is one of them.
She wants other renters to hear her story and be inspired to pay more attention to their cases.
“Don’t be ashamed,” she said. “Everyone’s going through the virus and all this stuff has hit everybody hard. Don’t think you’re the only one.”
She says she wants to move on to a new home, find new work and start fresh. She hopes other renters in the Boulder area realize there’s help available for them too.
“This program was a win for me,” DeFurio said. “You can feel like you get into this system and you can’t get out. But I finally found a win.”
Struggling to pay rent in Northern Colorado? Here’s a list of resources.