Struggling tenants get a boost from Alpine Legal Services
Eviction cases can come at the expense of time, resources, money and emotions, which is why an area nonprofit organization has ratcheted up its efforts to keep the disputes out of the courthouse.
Alpine Legal Service’s rental-assistance program this fall and winter has financially aided 12 households and by doing so, has spared them of going through the eviction process and kept shelter over their heads. As of the first week of December, the organization also had provided legal counsel to another 154 individuals having difficulties paying rent, according to the organization’s executive director, Jennifer Wherry.
Alpine Legal Services, which covers Garfield, Pitkin and western Eagle counties — the Aspen-to-Parachute region — already had been providing free civil legal services to crime victims and low-income seniors, as well as helping mediate or provide counsel in family matters.
Then came global COVID-19 pandemic, kickstarted with layoffs and lockdowns, which ignited concern over people’s abilities to abilities to pay rent.
“Eviction prevention has been a hot topic for us since March of 2020,” Wherry said. “But we started realizing that once the parties were in court, that was the point at which they had the fewest options. Usually a landlord would have spent money and time taking them to court, and the landlord had been thinking about getting them out and getting someone else in. It was almost like the ship already had sailed, that the tenant was not going to be welcome back, even if if the tenant got caught up on rent.”
The anticipated spike in eviction cases did not materialize due to state moratoriums and added protections for renters, but in August, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 6-3 margin overturned a federal order banning evictions in counties deemed with “high” or “substantial” rates of COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That ban expired Oct. 3.
As well, Colorado’s moratorium on evictions expired Jan. 1. And in October, a state law was lifted that had banned landlords from collecting late fees from tenants delinquent on rent. That moratorium was in place from April 20, 2020. to June 12, 2020, and it was reinstalled from Oct. 15, 2020, through April 2021.
The Aspen Institute also concluded in an August 2020 report that 12.6 million households — with 28.9 million people — were at risk at being evicted by the end of 2020. That figure, representing 29% of renters in America, was based on Census Bureau data related to tenants’ confidence in their ability to pay rent on time.
The Institute’s report suggested “support for vulnerable residents” would help ease the situation, whether by increasing funding “for emergency rental assistance, tenant legal aid, and homelessness prevention services,” providing temporary housing for evicted residents, and supporting “small, independent landlords who are at risk of losing their properties due to tenants’ financial hardship.”
Alpine Legal Services has checks off two of those boxes — working with landlords and helping low-income residents. With a $45,000 financial boost from the Aspen Community Foundation, Alpine Legal Services had used $23,448 of it to help those dozen households from getting evicted, equating to an average amount of $1,954 per household, according to Wherry.
Funding sources, while critical to a successful eviction-diversion program, aren’t the end-all solution, Wherry said.
Just as critical is a willingness from tenants and landlords to work things out, and also out of court.
“Tenants shouldn’t be afraid to speak to their landlords about their situation,” she said. “Most landlords do want to help their tenant and work toward a win-win situation with their tenants.”
Alpine Legal Services’ program also generated key support and help from the nonprofit Mountain Voices Project, which has a landlord-tenant housing program. Mountain Voices already had a database of housing landlords it began collecting after the pandemic broke. Volunteers called the landlords to tell them about the organization’s rental-assistance program.
“John Fox Rubin in April 2020 put a list together with Mountain Voices,” Wherry said, “and put a list together of every mobile-home park and apartment complex from Parachute to Aspen, and every property management company, and we were literally calling them one at a time.”
The calls started in April 2020, with following rounds in October 2020 and another one this year. They asked the landlords if tenants were having difficult paying rent and on time, and to refer them to Alpine Legal Services.
Any tenant referred to Alpine Legal Services qualifies for its help, Wherry said, noting the organization’s attorneys guide a mediation process between the renters and landlord. Alpine Legal Assistance’s mediation hotline is 970-230-3935.
“They all are qualified,” she said, noting the tenants come from its service area’s lower-income populace. “They are qualified by their life circumstances, or otherwise the landlord wouldn’t be referring them to us.
“We’re getting the referral directly from the landlord, so the landlord is saying this tenant needs help, and we know this is more costly for the community than it is for them to remain housed.”
Alpine Legal Services, in turn, works with the tenant to set up a payment plan that’s agreeable with the landlord. The tenants usually have fallen on hard times whether through medical setbacks or pandemic restrictions, Wherry said. Some are COVID-19 long-haulers with limited earning abilities, she said.
The flood of evictions hasn’t been as bad as originally anticipated. The moratoriums have helped, Wherry said, but she noted that tenant-aid programs like the one promoted by Alpine Legal Service also is helping curb evictions.
In the tri-county area Alpine Legal covers, Garfield County is the most impacted by eviction cases, according to data from the Colorado Judicial Office.
Garfield County, not including Rifle, saw 49 eviction cases in 2018, 56 in 2019, 34 in 2020, and 58 through Dec. 12, data show. The Rifle part of Garfield County processed 49 eviction cases in 2018, 56 in 2019, 34 in 2020 and 58 through Dec. 12.
The numbers are lower in Pitkin County, which had 26 eviction cases in 2018, 24 in 2019, 14 in 2020 and 18 as of Dec. 12. And in the Basalt portion of Eagle County, five eviction cases were filed in 2018, 11 in 2019, three in 2020, and five through Dec. 12.
Elsewhere, rental assistance is available through the following agencies:
State and county rental assistance
— Colorado Emergency Rental Assistance, https://cdola.colorado.gov/rental-mortgage-assistance Eagle County Economic Services, 970–328-8840
— Eagle County Economic Services, 970–328-8840
— Pitkin County Economic Assistance, 970–920–5244
Local rental assistance from Parachute to Aspen
— Advocate Safehouse Project — for domestic and/or sexual violence survivors in Garfield County, 970-945-4439
— Aspen Family Connections — for families with children in Pitkin County, 970-205-7025
— Catholic Charities (Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties) — 970-384-2060
— Pitkin County Veterans’ Services — for active and retired military personnel and their families in Pitkin County,970-987-4855
— Reach Out Colorado — Parachute to Rifle, 970-459-0309
— Response — for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse who live and/or work in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, 970-920-5357
— River Center of New Castle — New Castle and Silt, 970-984-4333
— Salvation Army, Parachute to Aspen — 970-945-6976
— Valley Settlement (for Latinx families) — 970-963-0851
— Western Slope Veterans Coalition — one-time assistance provided for veterans, 970-233-8375