A Colorado group was recognized by the White House for its efforts to help people facing eviction
Earlier this month, the White House gathered stakeholders from around the country to discuss evictions in the U.S. The goal of the summit was to build on resources created during the pandemic to protect people from eviction. An organization from Colorado was invited to contribute to the conversation.
Zach Neumann is the co-founder and executive director of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. KUNC's Beau Baker spoke with Neumann this week about the project and the state of evictions in Colorado.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Beau Baker: Zach, first off, congratulations on being highlighted by the White House. How was that for you?
Zach Neumann: It's incredibly exciting and also just a little bit terrifying. We had to present on our model and, you know, those things can always be a little nerve-wracking. But we were we were thrilled to be up there and really excited to talk about the work we've been doing for the past two years here in Colorado.
Baker: How did the COVID 19 Eviction Defense Project come to be? Where were you and what was on your mind?
Neumann: Yeah. I mean, I think two years ago, if you had said, you know, in 2022, you'll be working on evictions and working on COVID-related evictions, I would have not believed you.
I was doing at the time a lot of pro-bono eviction defense work for clients, folks who usually weren't able to pay their rent, representing them in court, providing, you know, legal services and support, just kind of as a volunteer. And when COVID happened, I put a message up on social media and I basically said, you know, if anyone is struggling to pay your rent, if you're not sure about what you're going to do, if you need any support at all, drop me a line. Send me a message. I'm happy to be supportive. I got off my account. I didn't get back on for 24 hours. And when I got back on I had like 500 messages. Strangers were reaching out. People somehow found my phone number and were texting me. And you have these moments in life where you're like, ‘Man, there's really something here.’
I think we went from there and we started as a community organizing project, just trying to do legal services and a little bit of education information. And from that, we've built an organization of over 100 people that we do emergency rental assistance through the Colorado Stability Fund. We offer legal services, we have a policy shop. And I think our whole team has really just been very committed and very invested in this issue for over two years now.
Baker: Zack, walk me through how the project would help someone facing eviction.
Neumann: So our philosophy is always make this as easy as you can for people. And so if you're coming to us, you come in through a single point of contact and the first thing we try to do is just provide money. So through the Colorado Stability Fund, we're trying to understand how much rent debt you owe your landlord, seeing if you qualify for the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. And assuming you are, we'll make that payment as fast as we can. In most cases, both. That takes care of everything. Landlords just want to get paid, tenants just want to pay them.
A check takes care of 90% of the cases we see. For that other 10% though, where there's some outstanding issue or there's some more challenging circumstance. In those cases, our fund will refer those clients to our firm, to the lawyers on our team, and our lawyers will then take those cases. What we find in most of those instances is the combination of that rental assistance and having access to a lawyer then resolves the situation.
Baker: From your vantage point, are things getting better for renters in the state, especially considering from where you started in 2020? What is the picture look like today?
Neumann: I don't know if it's gotten better. I don't think it's gotten worse. I will say it's different. So when the pandemic started, you suddenly had a very significant chunk of our state workforce unable to go to work. People can’t earn a living. They couldn't earn income. And as a result of that, they couldn't pay their rent.
I think now people are mostly back to work, but the cost of housing has gone up dramatically. And so we see a number of our clients who are working 40, 50, 60 hours a week, but rent is, you know, 50 or 60% of their pretax income. So it's basically most of the money they earn after taxes. They have very little left over for food. They have very little left over for childcare. And if anything in the family budget goes wrong, they suddenly can't pay their rent. So we're really struggling as an organization and with our clients, or I should say alongside our clients with the incredibly high cost of housing here at the state.
Baker: What do you think is at the root of most evictions and how can we address some of the issues effectively?
Neumann: We have a real problem in the United States in that in most parts of our country, the civil legal system has just become another means of debt collection.
If you think about an eviction, most of the time someone can't pay. They owe money. And the threat of removal from their home is the tool that's used to collect on that money. I think you see that in other sectors of the economy, too. You know, we hear about it a lot in the medical debt world. We hear a lot about it in the world of consumer debt.
I think for us, we're really focused on providing better tools for people who are facing those sorts of challenges. So whether it's eviction, whether it's foreclosure or whether you're facing, you know, maybe an illegal or an abusive tow or you've lost your car, maybe it's medical debt, but really focused on kind of tip of the spear within the civil legal system, financial problems that people are trying to resolve.
Baker: What's next for the project?
Neumann: I don't think we're going anywhere. So we're about to update our name. We've mentioned this in a few places, but we're soon changing our name to the Community Economic Defense Project, which recognizes our mission in the eviction space, of course, but also forecasts that we're now moving into mortgage and foreclosure defense. We're going to continue to work on residential towing.
We're going to keep working on issues related to housing debt and medical debt and really doing everything we can to preserve and stabilize the economic well-being of families.Zack Neumann, co-founder and executive director of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project
If you or someone you know is having difficulty paying rent and could use help from the Eviction Defense Project, you can access the organization's intake form for those who need legal or rental assistance.