Colorado renters to landlord law firm: educate don’t evict

Just after lunch on Sept. 21, a group of about a dozen people, most of them women and most of them renters, gather outside a south Denver office building that houses the law firm of Tschetter Hamrick and Sulzer.

The firm does not shy away from its market share. It advertises itself as Colorado’s #1 landlord law firm, as well as #1 in Colorado evictions.  Go observe proceedings in Denver County eviction court and chances are one of its lawyers is present, ready to make a deal with a tenant on behalf of a landlord. That deal usually involves paying past-due rent in exchange for a week or so more time in the rental. From what I’ve seen, tenants usually sign with the hope that once they get square, the landlord will change his or her mind about the eviction and let them stay. Whether that happens is a matter of the landlord’s patience, discretion or mercy.  As Judge John Marcucci warns tenant after tenant in his courtroom: “You could show up with a bucket of money and they could say, ‘We don’t want your money. You’re out.’ And you have to move.”

The renters outside Tschetter Hamrick and Sulzer were organized by Colorado Homes for All, a coalition of community groups including 9to5 Colorado. Most are wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with 9to5’s logo and the words “Winning Justice for Working Women.” Some carry rolls of tape and faux eviction notices informing the law firm that it has three days to “quit for your hand in [perpetuating] the housing crisis. You need to be held accountable.”

The notice goes on to say that “evictions cause displacement, gentrification of communities, homelessness and it pushes people further into poverty.”

The plan is to paper the elevators and walls with the eviction notices and then present, preferably to one of the firm’s law partners, a letter asking the firm’s lawyers to be more transparent with tenants about how eviction works, to offer tenant education classes and, most of all, to support funding for what protesters hope will be one day be a statewide legal defense fund for renters facing eviction.

That latter request coincides with a study released last week by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy that looked in depth at 2,000 eviction cases filed in Denver from 2014 to 2016. (Researchers Jack Regenbogen of CCLP and Aubrey Hasvold from CCH also drew upon a data set of 93,000 evictions going back to 2001.)

The study quantifies what until now has been only anecdotal: tenants in Denver eviction cases almost never have lawyers and landlords almost always do. And that makes a world of difference.

In the cases studied, only a tiny fraction of tenants had legal representation, but those who did usually stayed in their home (about 80 percent of the time in public housing cases and 94 percent in private housing cases). As many as 7 in 10 of those without lawyers lost their housing depending upon whether the renter was living in public housing, where mediation is required before an eviction, or in private housing, where it’s not.

While it seems obvious that having legal counsel would help tenants, Regenbogen says it’s not a foregone conclusion because Colorado is a state where laws favor the landlord.

“We suspected tenants weren’t getting a fair shake in court,” he says. “We didn’t realize that it was going to be as unfair as it ended up being.”

The study also found that tenants are being evicted for relatively small amounts of rent due. “We’re talking 35 dollars, 30, 25, there was one case alleging four dollars of unpaid rent, which is really unconscionable,” Regenbogen says.

The data pointed to a clear lack of education among tenants about their rights. More than nine in 10 did not file an answer in court to the landlord’s complaint. Doing so would have allowed them to stay in their homes a little longer and to present their side of the complaint to the judge. Many signed stipulated agreements with the landlord and in the majority of those consensual agreements, Regenbogen says, “tenants were basically agreeing to their own evictions.”

“It’s heartbreaking to witness that up close,” he says, noting that he’s observed eviction proceedings in Denver County Court. “It’s hard not to just scream, ‘Don’t sign it. Don’t sign it.’”

In their study, Regenbogen and Hasvold recommend expanding access to emergency rental assistance and mediation among other solutions. But what would make the most difference, they conclude, is public funding for eviction defense for indigent tenants.

New York City does this, Regenbogen says. It’s expensive, though cheaper in the long run than trying to help people after they have been evicted. He notes that a Denver eviction defense project working group led by two city councilmembers and members of the administration is in the early stages of examining various solutions, including a legal clinic staffed by law students.

Nancy Burke, the vice president of Government Affairs for the Colorado Apartment Association and the Apartment Association of Metro Denver, is a member of the eviction defense project group. She emphasizes that unpaid rent is the biggest factor in eviction and “lawyers cannot really move the needle for nonpayment.”

The solution, Burke says, lies in more tenant education. The earlier the better. “Tenants that know their responsibilities and rights are less likely to go through the eviction process,” she says. Landlords would rather avoid evictions, she says, and mediation is an option, but “often there are long waits for this service.”

No one from Tschetter Hamrick and Sulzer returned a phone call and email request for comment left earlier today. At the firm’s offices Thursday, the protest goes off as planned. It’s led by Jenee Donelson, who was evicted from her Denver apartment in 2012 and who described to me earlier this summer how she took what she could and then watched from a friend’s truck as sheriff’s deputies oversaw the emptying of her apartment.

“I watched them take my stuff out and I have fears of being arrested. I have fears of people seeing me cry or break down. I have fears of people seeing my things being thrown out. My life is all the way out there.”   

She owed $600 in back rent. With legal and cleaning fees, she ended up paying $3,000, she says. She did not go to court to try to fight her eviction, she told me then “because I’m, like, what are they going to do for me? It’s already over. I’ve been in this home for six years and now it’s gone.”

Donelson leads the women to the 8th floor and they post mock eviction notices on the elevator walls along the way. In the office reception area, they begin reciting the names of those evicted in recent years.

A representative of the firm comes out and tells everyone they have to leave. “You evicted me five years ago,” Donelson says to him, not budging. “Ok,” he says. “You took my home away from me. “Ok,” he says again. “I was five years homeless afterwards,” she says. “Your moral compass is off, sir. You need to do better as a law firm. You need to do better by the people of Colorado.”

“I have no idea what your platform is all about,” he starts to say. “You know your stats,” Donalson interjects.  She demands the firm support an eviction defense fund.

“Have a good day,” he says.

As the renters file out, they again recite the names of evicted tenants.

Outside the women regroup. It’s national Renters’ Week of Action and they have the Denver Meadows Mobile Home and RV Park in north Aurora to rally at next. A few of the women in the group live at the park, which is home to about 350 people, most of them children.

The owner plans to close it next summer. Unless residents can persuade him otherwise, all are to be evicted.

Members of Colorado Homes for All tape a mock eviction notice to the elevator wall in a south Denver office building housing the law firm of Tschetter Hamrick and Sulzer on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2017. Photo by Tina Griego. 
Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.