Arapahoe County launches legal clinic pilot program to help residents facing eviction

Megan O’Byrne, Supervising Attorney for the Housing Unit at Colorado Legal Services, prepares for a case before meeting with a client, July 14, at the Arapahoe County District Court in Littleton.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

LITTLETON | Arapahoe County has partnered with Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to low-income Coloradans, for a pilot program providing free legal services to county residents facing eviction.

The three-year program is being funded by $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money approved by the Arapahoe board of county commissioners.

“Eviction is a truly traumatic experience for families, especially families with children,” said Megan O’Byrne, a CLS lawyer who heads the program.

The program, which launched May 15, is open three mornings a week at the county’s offices in Littleton. O’Byrne and her team of a law intern and two paralegals have the capacity to help three people each morning, but would like to hire another attorney so they can assist more people.

The Arapahoe County program is modeled after a similar program CLS has in Adams County, but more people in Arapahoe have reached out for help, O’Byrne said. According to a 2021 report from Colorado Newsline, Arapahoe County had the highest number of eviction filings of any county in the state, followed by Denver, Adams and El Paso counties.

Luc Hatlestad, a spokesperson for Arapahoe County, said the county was inspired to work with CLS due to the results of the program in Adams County.

That program enabled 85% of those households to sustain their housing situation by giving them more time to move or to obtain a housing voucher,” he said in an email. “We’re already seeing similarly encouraging results with our clinic.”

The downstream effects of an eviction can be seriously harmful to renters. Having to find a new place to live after being evicted is stressful and can push some people into homelessness if they can’t find another affordable place. Many landlords are unwilling to rent to people who have a record of a past eviction, which can make finding future housing difficult for years to come.

The clinic’s highest priority is keeping people housed, O’Byrne said. If they can’t stay, the clinic works to negotiate a voluntary exit that gives them enough time to move to another place and keeps an eviction off their permanent record.

Unlike the criminal justice system, there is no right to legal representation in civil court. O’Byrne said that 90% of landlords have an attorney, which the majority of tenants do not — people who are struggling to afford rent don’t generally have the budget for legal fees. That skews the system in favor of the landlords.

“When tenants don’t have attorneys, it can lead to very unfair outcomes,” she said.

Most people the clinic sees in Arapahoe County are facing eviction because they are struggling financially and behind on paying their rent, she said. Residents must make below 200% of the federal poverty limit — for a family of four, that equates to an annual income of $55,500 — to qualify for CLS’ help, and the majority of the people she works with are single mothers or families with children.

“Low-income families are still bearing the brunt of the effects of the pandemic,” O’Byrne said. Now that the federal eviction moratorium is no longer in place, some of them are struggling to stay in their housing.

The clinic files a response to people who are being sued in court (without a response judges automatically grant requests for an eviction), which buys them time. It then works to connect them to the Colorado Stability Fund, which provides expedited emergency rental assistance to people, and other resources to help them pay what they owe.

Sarah Carrillo has lived in the county for 10 years, and her rent is four times what it was when she first started living here. The mother of three was at the clinic in July because she’s facing an eviction for falling behind on rent. Since the pandemic started her hours at work have fluctuated, and with the cost of rent in the region soaring it’s been hard to keep up, she said.

After the eviction was filed, she had a lot of questions and didn’t know where to turn. She went to the courthouse to try and get some information, and was referred to the clinic. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to afford any legal services.

“I can barely make rent,” she said. She wants more people to take advantage of the pilot program. 

“I hope a lot of people look into this,” Carrillo said. “I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t come down here.”

The clinic is located on the third floor of the County Building at 1690 W. Littleton Boulevard and is staffed from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.