Denver voters must decide on new tax on landlords for renters to have legal eviction help

Following two COVID-19-addled years during which federal and state intervention prevented what could have been a much more dire situation for many renters, Denver voters in November will decide if they want to enact a new tax on landlords to provide lawyers for people facing evictions.

Initiated Ordinance 305, the No Eviction Without Representation Denver, proposes taxing landlords of most rental housing in Denver $75 per year per unit they own. The money from that tax, which would go up with inflation, will be used to establish a legal defense program that would provide any renter at risk of losing their housing with legal representation during eviction proceedings. 

People backing the measure, expected to raise just shy of $12 million in its first year, say it would prevent more people from becoming homeless amid the country, state and city’s housing crisis. 

“It’s about keeping people in their homes,” housing activist Wren Echo, one of the lead organizers for the 305 campaign, said. 

The Apartment Association of Metro Denver, meanwhile, argues that the measure is a redundant, unnecessary overspend that would result in the new tax simply being passed on to cash-strapped renters. 

It’s totally unnecessary,” said Drew Hamrick, the association’s senior vice president of government affairs. “You pay the $75 no matter how poor you are … and you have access to (the legal defense) no matter how rich you are. I don’t think the government should subsidize lawyers in civil matters.” 

Homelessness in Denver has increased dramatically in recent years. A point-in-time count conducted on one day in late January found that 4,798 people were either staying in homeless shelters or living on the streets of Denver. That’s a 15% increase over the 4,171 unhoused people counted in the city during the point-in-time survey in 2020. Metro-wide, the number of unhoused people rose 12.8% in 2022 over 2020. 

Echo and fellow 305 supporters point to other cities that have enacted similar legislation as proof of the program’s value. New York City officials passed a law in 2017 guaranteeing legal services for all tenants facing evictions. According to a fall 2020 report, the city’s Office of Civil Justice found that 86% of tenants represented by lawyers through that program between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, were able to stay in their homes. 

“When you show up with a lawyer, you win,” Echo said. “Lawyers can negotiate agreements with landlords to work something out.”

To the opposition argument that the tax will be passed on directly to tenants through increased rents, Echo counters that rents move with market forces. Even if the costs are passed on in some cases, $75 breaks down to $6.25 a month to create a permanent, universal legal resource that protects tenants’ rights. 

“(Evictions) are incredibly disruptive to people’s lives,” Echo said. “Even in the best case scenario, someone has to move when they are least financially equipped to move. Eviction records make it much harder to find housing in the future so this is a huge portion of Denver’s crisis.” 

The measure directs the city to establish the program within 12 months of the ordinance passing. The revenue brought in would also pay for the administration of the program including hiring a coordinator to manage it and the establishment of a seven-member tenants committee tasked with ensuring the program is being run properly. Committee members would be paid $1,000 per year.

There are exemptions carved out for landlords who either live in a property or are allowing a family member to live in a property and have two or fewer renters living there as well.

Eviction filings in Denver County Court have fluctuated significantly over the last four years with intervening federal and state moratoriums and rule changes related to the pandemic. In 2019, 9,249 cases were filed. In 2020, that number fell to 3,912 cases. Between September 2021 and August of this year, 7,111 eviction cases were filed, according to court officials. 

Landlords spend about $500 on legal fees on an eviction action, Hamrick said. Using that same figure to estimate the cost of providing legal defense for tenants, that adds up to roughly $3.6 million over the 7,111 cases filed in the 12 months between August and last September. 

The city of Denver already has a right-to-counsel policy for eviction cases. It was approved by the City Council in June 2021 and took effect on Sept. 1 that year, according to Derek Woodbury, spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Stability. 

Working with contractors including Colorado Legal Services and the Colorado Poverty Law Project, the city’s program has provided full or partial legal representation to 1,383 households, Woodbury said. Another 2,538 households have been provided with housing navigation coaching, tenants’ rights workshops and other resources. 

The contracts allow for more spending, but between September 2021 and August of this year, the city has spent less than $1.2 million on those services, Woodbury said. 

“The biggest reason to oppose this bill, even if you like the concept, is the massive overspend,” Hamrick said. “As much as $9 million of the money is more than is needed for the outcome (proponents) are searching for.” 

The city’s legal defense program is reserved for people with low to moderate incomes. The barriers and bureaucracy around the process prevent some people from applying, especially from groups in legally precarious positions like undocumented immigrants, Echo said. The No Eviction Without Representation Measure provides certainty and that’s why a grassroots group of Denver renters brought it to the ballot. 

“Renters are asking for this because we are concerned about ourselves and our neighbors becoming homeless,” she said. 

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