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Settling landlord-tenant disputes civilly

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Rental housing. More than any others, these two words will spark a lively conversation with just about any Roaring Fork Valley resident. We all know of someone, or maybe we are that someone, who is a landlord looking for a reliable tenant, or we are the reliable renter looking for a good housing fit in a Valley with slim options.

Jenny Wherry, executive director of the Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit Alpine Legal Services (ALS), which provides civil legal services from Aspen to Parachute, said landlord-tenant mediation services are available to negotiate agreements between landlords and tenants.

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Mediation can reduce the number of rental property evictions, as it offers an avenue to resolve conflict before it escalates into something more costly to the community, such as the potential for violence when law enforcement officials serve eviction orders in already stressful situations where the tension between parties is likely to be heightened.

Sometimes the mediation results in buying time, where the landlord will give a tenant an extra month or two and, “because they’re negotiating more time, they don’t have a lawful right to stay, because it is the end of the lease and they’re not renewing the lease, and so sometimes it’s a win,” said Wherry.

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Through the Colorado judicial system, the state Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR) offers mediation services, typically used for pending eviction cases, Wherry explained. While there have been ongoing efforts to bring an ODR office to the Western Slope, local mediation services offer a less bureaucratic alternative, “more about ‘Hey, before you file an eviction order, let’s have a conversation.’”

Michael Soldonz works as a volunteer mediator at ALS, the City of Boulder Community Mediation and Resolution Center and the 20th Judicial District (Boulder County), which publishes an online monthly schedule where he can sign up for cases, depending on his workload and availability.

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A good mediator will “set the tone” and establish ground rules upfront, Soldonz shared. He added that the process is voluntary, so either party can end the mediation at any time “if any violence or threats of violence or bodily harm are made, the mediation ends right there.”

Soldonz said, “a laudable goal we shoot for is to have both parties achieve agreement through self-determination — they’ve come to the table with their ideas and found the solution. The mediator’s goal is to be the facilitator to help them get to that point. It’s not about living in the past, or with whatever’s happened before in the tenant/landlord relationship; we’re trying to be future-focused.”

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When an eviction goes to court, involved parties need to consider legal fees, time and wages lost while spending a day in court. Another factor to consider, Soldonz said, is “you have a judge who doesn’t know you or your case, other than a quick reading of the facts, and while they may have the best of intentions, they’ve got a docket of 30 cases, and all of them have to be decided in one day.”

Tammy Sullivan is the managing attorney at the Alamosa office of Colorado Legal Services (CLS), covering Colorado’s 12th Judicial District, which includes Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache counties. CLS provides free civil legal services for low-income Coloradans.

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The Alamosa-based nonprofit The Center for Restorative Programs (CRP) is a restorative justice program that offers online and in-person mediation services and an assessment to determine the need and availability of other resources.

As a result of CRP’s work, the community benefits from successful mediations by reducing workloads for Sullivan, her staff and the court. She said, “I’ve had very few cases where I haven’t been able to negotiate something that works for everyone with the mediation program. I haven’t litigated a full eviction case in over a year.”

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Going through the eviction process is stressful, “and when we’re operating under that stress, there’s probably a lot of other stressful things happening in someone’s life.” She says having the court refer people to free mediation services “is helpful because people are in a compromised state when they’re facing eviction.”

Tony Mendez, ALS staff attorney, shared that statistics are currently unavailable to know whether evictions increased since the federal moratorium ended last summer. However, it has been reported that evictions in Colorado decreased because money in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program paid for tenants and mortgagees behind on their rent during COVID. Mendez added, “Sadly, those funds are set to run out by late June 2023.”

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Wherry said an impending eviction impacts every area of your and your family’s life. “Nothing is going to be stable about your life — emotionally, mentally, physically, education-wise, job-wise — nothing. If you don’t have stable housing. It’s hard to make a foothold on any progress. When you have that perfect storm of the tenant needing mental health support, perhaps, and about to face homelessness, they don’t have anything to lose at that point, and it can become a dangerous combination.”

Sullivan observed, “We forget the human component of the legal process a lot of the time because it’s just such a robotic process in many ways.” Mediation services are meant to include the human element to resolve landlord-tenant disputes in a dignified and respectful manner.

Alpine Legal Services provides bilingual mediation services from Parachute to Aspen for landlord/tenant disputes. For more information, go to www.alpinelegalservices.org or call 970-230-3935 to be connected to a mediator.

 

WHAT DOES THE COLORADO WARRANTY OF HABITABILITY LAW MEAN?

Landlords are responsible for safety and health standards in the homes they rent out. Colorado’s Warranty of Habitability law can help renters who are

worried their homes are unsafe.

This quick guide gives a brief overview of the safety and health issues covered under the law.

WHAT ISSUES ARE COVERED?

Conditions that affect whether a unit is habitable and situations that interfere with a renter’s life, health or safety and were not caused by the renter, including:

  • roof and exterior walls that leak
  • broken windows and exterior doors that have broken locks
  • gas and plumbing problems
  • mold
  • broken appliances*
  • lack of hot and cold running water
  • problems with sewage disposal system
  • problems with heat
  • electrical lighting and wiring in poor order
  • common areas that are not kept clean or have garbage
  • infestation of bugs, pests and rodents
  • floors, stairways and railings in poor condition (inside the building)
  • lack of compliance with building or health codes (If renters have questions about building and health codes, they can call their local county health department.)

*Appliances that may be covered include refrigerator, range stove or oven if they are present at the time of move-in or are part of the written agreement between the landlord and home renter. Refer to Colorado Legal Services for more information.

For more about Colorado’s habitability law, visit www.bit.ly/COhabitability

Tags: #Alpine Legal Services #Colorado Legal Services #Colorado Warranty of Habitability #housing
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