Boulder officials announced Monday morning a petition that would require the city to provide renters a lawyer during eviction proceedings would appear on the November ballot after thousands of signatures were approved and the campaign leaders cured several dozen signatures within the allotted time to do so.
A majority of voters this fall would have to support the proposed law for it to take effect. The group No Evictions Without Representation spearheaded efforts to get the issue onto the ballot.
The campaign, meant to bolster the rights of rental tenants, is so far the only initiative to overcome the difficulties of engaging direct democracy safely and effectively during a coronavirus pandemic that has made traditional door-to-door signature gathering unappealing. An attempt to reallocate funding away from the city’s municipal utility project via petition fell short of the endorsements needed to appear before voters, although its leader Patrick Murphy started his effort later than the No Evictions Without Representation group, which had begun accumulating support prior to the virus knocking Boulder County and the world off balance.
Two more petition campaigns, one seeking to loosen residential occupancy limits and another hoping to start direct ranked-choice elections of Boulder’s mayor, have been given the green light for signature gathering and have until later this summer to turn in their endorsements for counting to the city. A third aiming at influencing the annexation of the CU South parcel backed by PLAN-Boulder County is requesting a hearing with the city to gain its approval for circulation among voters. So far, the city has withheld that approval, citing the already-passed deadline to which proposals that would not amend the city charter are subject, City Attorney Tom Carr said.
Leaders of No Evictions Without Representation, partners Ruy and Meagan Arango, said the group of volunteers isn’t about to settle down and celebrate, but rather is immediately preparing to carry the campaign through the November election.
“NEWR is not going to change state or federal eviction law, tenant law. What it is going to do is correct an imbalance of power between tenants and landlords and give tenants access to justice,” Ruy Arango said.
The program, if approved by voters, would fund the costs of attorneys for renters through a $75 per unit fee paid by landlords when renewing their rental licenses for the city, the organizers said. Currently, 88% of landlords in Boulder County use an attorney in eviction proceedings, while only 2% of tenants do, Meagan Arango said, while there was a 27% increase in summons to eviction court in the county over the four years from 2016 to 2019.
James Newell, an attorney in Boulder who has represented both landlords and tenants in eviction cases, said having a lawyer on a tenant’s side more often might help streamline the process and prevent a full-on eviction from becoming necessary and staining the civil record of the renter for years.
“I’m overwhelmed with calls. There is no way I can respond to all of them,” Newell said. “For those people who know the system, who have some familiarity with it, the fact that so many tenants go without representation can have a lot of deleterious effects.”
The Boulder Area Rental Housing Association is opposed to the proposal in its current form, said Todd Ulrich, board president for the association. Ulrich believes requiring every landlord in the city to pay into the program is unfair, and that the goal of providing legal representation for tenants could be accomplished in a more targeted fashion, such as by having only the landlords who file for evictions float the cost.
“I haven’t done an eviction in 12 years, I don’t feel like I have to pay for other evictions,” Ulrich said.
In recent years, according to Ulrich, about 6% of rental housing units statewide end up in a filing for eviction annually, while it’s only about 2.6% in Boulder. About 90% of evictions in Boulder County are for nonpayment of rent, Ulrich said.
“Attorneys don’t change the outcome for nonpayment. They can change the outcome for other breaches of contract, attorneys are very helpful in those situations,” Ulrich said. “If owners, especially of larger portfolios, are mandated and they get to a point where they need to file for an eviction, I think they’re less likely to settle (out of court) at that point because they know that person is going to have an attorney on their side. I think we’re creating a new bureaucracy, it’s an awful lot of money, three times what would be needed if you’re looking at the empirical evidence.”
The association is aligned with NEWR on the goal of reducing evictions but thinks there may be more efficient methods, such as putting more money in rental assistance or mediation services outside court that could be used by renters.