Last year, Carl fell behind on his rent and used all of his savings to pay it off — only to fall behind again. Self-employed, Carl saw his business all but shut down due to the pandemic; the state unemployment system was severely delayed. The second time he struggled, he got rental assistance to cover two months of rent, but the property management company encouraged him to find somewhere else to live. He did, but still without work, the father of two fell behind again.
Carl eventually received help from the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project (CEDP). His story is one of many that volunteer lawyers with the Denver-based organization have encountered over the last nine months as they’ve provided free legal services to tenants at risk of eviction. The organization formed last spring in response to what’s now an ongoing eviction crisis, first sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of the year, CEDP had responded to about 750 requests for help.
Last August, CEDP estimated that 30-40 million Americans could be at risk of eviction due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. A September analysis by the project estimated that as many as 436,000 Coloradans were at risk of being evicted by the end of 2020. Even when eviction moratoria are active on both the state and federal levels, loopholes enable landlords to evict tenants. With longstanding laws — especially in Colorado — that heavily favor landlords, tenants have little recourse.
“I can’t tell you how many people have been just flabbergasted that they’ve ended up in this situation,” says Carey Degenaro, CEDP’s Director of Legal Services. “[Many tenants] have never been behind on rent before and just can’t believe that this is happening.”
CEDP’s first paid staff member, Degenaro was hired with support from an $80,000 grant from The Denver Foundation’s COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund. An extension of the donor-supported Critical Needs Fund, this fund was launched when it became clear the pandemic would be a long-term challenge with long-lasting impacts.
While also providing funds to meet immediate human needs, the COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund prioritizes actionable ideas aimed at tackling systemic problems brought to light by the pandemic. The Foundation is especially interested in ideas that have a public policy angle and that promote racial and socioeconomic equity.
“This fund provided an opportunity to reset and to reimagine what our community can be and what it should be,” says Kristi Keolakai, The Denver Foundation’s Vice President of Partnership, Policy, and Learning.
The COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund offered a lower-barrier way for organizations to request funding. Rather than submitting a full-blown grant proposal, organizations simply outline their idea and its potential impact. Submissions are reviewed weekly and moved on as quickly as possible. The process can take as little as two weeks, compared to the usual four or five months. That faster, simpler process is an example of The Denver Foundation embodying the innovation it’s asking of potential grantees.
By the end of 2020, The Denver Foundation had granted nearly $2.3 million through the COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund, including for 10 big-idea recovery projects. The projects cover a variety of areas, including legislation, health advocacy, and initiatives to support BIPOC communities. Funding helped the Metro Denver Partnership for Health develop its immunization plan for Metro Denver, which other counties have now referenced in creating their own. The Foundation also supported the coalition that worked to get paid medical and family leave on last November’s ballot, a measure that voters approved.
With its multi-pronged approach, CEDP matched the intent of the fund. In addition to connecting Colorado tenants with lawyers, the nonprofit conducts research to gauge the magnitude of the national eviction crisis and recommend more humane tenant-landlord policies. The Denver Foundation’s grant is effectively expanding the organization’s ability to provide legal aid to Colorado tenants. With the recent expiration of both state and federal moratoriums, CEDP is already seeing a leap in inquiries. Degenaro expects evictions to increase over the next several months.
“It’s easy to think of [the eviction crisis] as fading … because it’s gone on for so long,” she says, “but it’s still very, very much impacting a large portion of the state’s population.”
*Name changed to respect privacy.
The COVID-19 Recovery & Resilience Fund closed in early 2021, after providing more than $1 million in grants to support 23 projects.