ACCESS TO JUSTICE
BY HARRIET MCCONNELL RETFORD
On March 1, 2019, the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado kicks off its 15th annual Associates Campaign for Justice. This campaign provides an opportunity for young attorneys to learn about the needs of indigent persons in Colorado who are struggling with a civil legal issue, and to help meet the legal needs of those individuals. In 2018, the Associates Campaign raised a record-breaking $192,382 to support Colorado Legal Services (CLS), the only agency in Colorado that offers free civil legal services to indigent clients and underserved populations in every Colorado county. The Associates Campaign is organized and run entirely by law firm associates, with associate representatives at each participating firm working to spread the word and educate their colleagues about the many legal needs in our communities. Last year, 37 firms achieved 100% participation by their associates. In addition, many other firms had associates who contributed generously to CLS.
This article highlights CLS's efforts to assist low-income residents with an issue that is near to the hearts of many young attorneys in Colorado: skyrocketing rents throughout the state. Rising rents and house prices have led to an eviction crisis, with four municipalities in Colorado— Aurora, Colorado Springs, Westminster, and Lakewood—earning the dubious distinction of being among the top 100 cities nationwide in evictions, as a percentage of renters.1
The Eviction Crisis
America has an affordable housing problem, and Colorado is not immune. Between 2014 and 2017, rent in Denver increased by 22.4%, and surrounding cities and suburbs also experienced steep rent increases.2The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver is $1,050.3
These rising rents are being driven by rapid population growth—not wage growth—and are particularly burdensome for people with low incomes. A 2017 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that the full-time hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom home in Colorado is $21.97, and in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area, it is $25.10.4 This is significantly more than the average wage earned by Colorado renters, $17.13, and much higher than the current minimum wage of $11.10/hour.5
These high prices have spawned an eviction crisis. At least 45,000 eviction actions were filed in Colorado in 2017 (about 865 per week), according to a study conducted by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.6 The problem is particularly serious in Adams County, where the eviction rate is 4.4%.7
When the Colorado Center on Law and Policy reviewed 93,000 eviction cases in Denver County, it found that fewer than 3% of tenants were represented by counsel, while virtually all landlords went to court with an attorney.8 CLS is working to change this statistic, although the volume of cases is overwhelming and the legal process is challenging.
Evictions in Colorado move quickly. In private, non subsidized housing cases, a landlord is required to provide three days' notice to the tenant and an opportunity to cure the nonpayment of rent or the violation of a lease condition. If the rent is not paid within those three days, the landlord may file suit to evict the tenant. The court will provide a "return date" of between seven and 14 days after the eviction paperwork is served on the tenant. If the tenant contests the eviction, a trial is set in as few as five days. Once the court approves the eviction, the tenant usually has 48 hours to move.
Unrepresented tenants find it very difficult to challenge an eviction action. The Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that...