At the start of the pandemic, Colorado lawyer Zach Neumann posted on social media that he would gladly assist those facing evictions, but quickly saw that the need was far too great for him to handle alone. To address this pressing problem, he founded the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado. ABA Law Student Podcast host Meg Steenburgh talks with Zach about how the Project does its work and how law students anywhere in the country can get involved and help with housing and eviction crises in their own communities.
Zach Neumann is a lawyer whose practice focuses on landlord-tenant, debt collection, and wage dispute cases and is the founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado.
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ABA Law Student Podcast
Housing and Eviction Law: Helping Tenants in the Midst of COVID-19
February 26, 2021
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Meg Steinberg: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. I’m Meg Steenberg of 2L at Syracuse University College of Law JDI Program. This episode is sponsored by NBI. Taught by experienced practitioners, NBI provides practical skill-based CLE courses attorneys have trusted more than 35 years. Discover what NBI has to offer at nbi-sems.com.
Today, we are honored to speak with Zach Neumann. Zach is a lawyer whose practice focuses on landlord tenant, debt collection and wage dispute cases. Zach is the founder of the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado. He founded this project in April 2020 to respond to urgent questions about housing, homelessness and community recovery during the spread of the coronavirus. The mission of this team is to keep Coloradans housed by helping to prevent mass evictions and homelessness during and after the pandemic. Zach is also a public policy lecturer at CU Denver School of Public Affairs and writes about jobs and economic issues at the Aspen Institute.
Additionally, he worked at McKinsey & Company, The World Bank and on various political campaigns for democrats. He has also helped to launch social enterprise startups. Zach is a graduate of Georgetown Law. Zach, thank you for joining us today, especially during this time as you continue to assist clients during this pandemic.
Zach Neumann: No, Megan. Happy to be on. Thanks for having me today.
Meg Steinberg: Yeah. Well, let’s get right to it. Tell us about the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project and its origins.
Zach Neumann: Yeah. You know, it’s still an evolving story, but when we started this last March or April, I don’t think any of us on the team thought we’d be doing it a full year later. Before COVID hit, it was an addition to kind of teaching and working at a think tank, just doing a lot of pro bono cases on housing, debt collection, really trying to help people navigate these situations. And in late March, I started seeing a lot of chatter.
I threw a message up on Facebook. It basically said, “If anyone is worried about their housing during COVID, you think you’re going to get evicted, you’re worried about paying your rent, drop me a note, I’m happy to represent you for free or at least give you a little bit of advice in your case.” Go to bed, don’t think about it for about 24 hours. Get up the next day and I’ve got like 500 Facebook messages from people I don’t know, posts on my wall, I’m getting calls from numbers I don’t know, and I just had this moment where I was like, “Wow! There’s really something here.”
So, I called a friend and a former colleague, a guy named Sam Gilman who’s very, very good at data analytics. Sam crunches some numbers, looks at things and says, “This is going to be big. This is going to be enormous. Millions of people are going to be at risk of eviction because of COVID-related housing instability. We’ve got to get ahead of this” and that kind of started the whole thing.
So, from there, we built the project and today what we do is we offer people legal representation and advice in court. We have a small rental assistance fund. We do a lot of policy advocacy on the housing and debt front, and then we also publish research through the Aspen Institute and other think tanks.
Meg Steinberg: So, as a very basic level, how do evictions work and then how do eviction moratoriums counter?
Zach Neumann: Yeah. So, an eviction is the legal response that a landlord will undertake when someone has not paid their rent and so it varies from state to state and by jurisdiction. But in Colorado, generally speaking, the way an eviction works is that if you have not paid your rent the day after your rental payment’s late, your landlord can put a demand or a notice on your door. You then have the statutorily defined period of time to either pay the rent or depart the premises and if you don’t, they can file against you in court. And usually, between the day when they file and when it’s made its way through the court system, you’ve got about 14 or 15 days before you lose your housing eviction moratoria around the country. I have tried to respond to this problem by basically taking that legal remedy away from landlords. So, if a tenant is experiencing COVID-related hardship and they are unable to pay their rent, then they’re not able to pursue an eviction proceeding in court.
Meg Steinberg: What amazes me is reading through some of these articles and some of your work, and hearing these stories, is that how do people even know where to begin. And for some, they’re trying to choose, “Do I do some odd jobs, make some money so I can pay the rent? Do I keep a cellphone? I’ve got to have a cellphone so I can understand if I have a job I’ve –” and you know even just, as you said, you post the eviction notice on the door but you might not have a way to contact anybody or to even know how to begin that process. So, how do you ensure that people know and can reach out to you?
Zach Neumann: It’s not easy. I mean, we’ve seen, here in Colorado, so many default evictions because people don’t understand what a demand means or the filing never reaches them by mail, or maybe they get it and they’re scared to go to the courthouse. I think for us, really, we focused on taking advantage of opportunities like this to tell the story.
Obviously, this audience is probably a little bit more up the curve in terms of evictions, but trying to get the word out. And then we also do a lot of just marketing and online outreach to people to try to make sure folks know about these services. We also work closely here in Colorado with other groups like ours, Colorado Legal Services, the Colorado Poverty Law Project and really try to build a community set of resources so that folks have the right representation or the right access to rental assistance when they’re facing eviction.
Meg Steinberg: And as part of that teamwork on a global scale, your work clearly is influenced by DC even, as well as Colorado. How do you then get that word back to them like, “Hey, here’s reality on the ground. This is what’s happening. Here are the loopholes,” and helping from that policy side?
Zach Neumann: You know, the Biden Administration these past few weeks since they’ve been in office has been really great in their outreach. We got various calls from folks at Hud, a treasury at the White House, and I don’t think we’re special in that respect. It seemed like they were working through a really long list of legal providers, rental assistance providers, trying to understand the situation on the ground.
I think actually just today, treasury revised the FAQs related to the administration of federal rental assistance dollars and I think that’s largely the result of them reaching out to a lot of different providers around the country to better understand the situation on the ground.
Meg Steinberg: So, on any given day, how many people or families do you assist at any given time?
Zach Neumann: Oh, man. It’s a roller coaster. I mean, some days we’ve had 50 cases walk through the door in a matter of hours and that obviously feels like a lot. I think other days you have a smaller number. It really seems to vary by day of the week, by how fast rental assistance dollars are getting processed. Obviously, there’s been a lot of regulatory statutory change on evictions, both at the state and the federal level over the past year. Changes in policy also means that the day after a policy changes, we usually see an uptick or depending on the policy, a downtick as well.
Meg Steinberg: So, that kind of shows too, a level of awareness in terms of as they know things are expiring or ramping up, they’re coming to you?
Zach Neumann: Maybe. It could also speak to landlord’s tracking policy. So, a lot of the time, a policy will change, someone gets a demand maybe because the policy has changed, and then the tenant saying, “I just got this demand on my door. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do” and so then we kind of pick up that case and run with it.
Meg Steinberg: So, for all the people that come to you, are you able to keep them in their homes? Do you also get them out of leases to find a more affordable place? How many people have you been — I guess the percentage of those you can assist?
Zach Neumann: If people get to us early enough, we’re going to be able to help them. I think the kind of case that’s most challenging for us is once someone has already maybe been to court and they got that eviction judgment or they got a default judgment because they didn’t show up, then it’s a lot harder to intervene and help out. But if someone’s calling us the first time the demand is placed on their door or even after the filing has taken place, which is the second step in the process, there’s usually something we can do to help. But I think this is one of the real risks for tenants, all right. I mean, the policy is very unclear. The law is very unclear. Where you get resources is not super navigable and so a lot of the cases we see are people who are fairly deep in the process and are basically running out of options by the time they get to us.
Meg Steinberg: What kind of loopholes are you seeing?
Zach Neumann: So, I’m going to plead a little bit of ignorance because this varies by state, but I think the biggest loophole we have observed over the past year is that the CDC Moratorium as interpreted does not include evictions based on termination of lease, at the end of a lease or month-to-month leases. So, you have a number of evictions where people are non-paying, the 12 months of their lease is expired and they basically get served with a notice because the lease is expired.
I think in these informal month-to-month lease situations, you’re also seeing the same thing and so, for us, that’s the biggest loophole in that you have this whole category of people who haven’t been able to pay their rent. Now, the time is up and their landlords are able to evict them because it’s not being filed as a non-payment eviction case.
Meg Steinberg: What kind of trend do you see or pattern in the demographics?
Do you see a pattern? Is it young, old, single, married? Who’s impacted the most in Colorado that you’re seeing?
Zach Neumann: Yeah. So, the US Census Bureau does a weekly pulse survey on housing stability and they ask a few questions related to rent. One is, were you able to fully pay your rent last month and then do you anticipate being able to pay your rent fully next month. Right now, approximately one in five Americans is behind on their rent, but those numbers are much higher for communities of color here in the US and then also for people with children and household. This is not a problem that’s affecting people equally. People of color are disproportionately impacted and then parents of young children also suffer greater consequences. So, the risk is significant, but it’s especially concentrated within those two demographics.
Meg Steinberg: And your eviction assistance, it goes back and covers debts as well as it’s forward-looking, is that correct?
Zach Neumann: Yeah. So, we started our rental assistance product last year and that’s exactly right. It pays past rent. It also tries to pay future rent. Very recently, in December, federal policy came in line with that and I think we really see this as having a few benefits. One is that it’s extra stabilizing for the tenant. It gives them a chance to actually get back up on their feet. Two, it creates some certainty and some stability for the landlord because those next few months are taken care of so they can pay their mortgages and their taxes and take care of their obligations. But maybe most importantly for processors of rental assistance, it cuts down on the application load because when you’re paying someone’s past rent and their future rent, you’re not going to see them for a few months and maybe never again. Whereas when you pay it every single month, it’s a new application every single time.
Meg Steinberg: Because it definitely seems like a much more efficient process. So, as the legal assistants turns on funding, from which sources do you draw your funds?
Zach Neumann: So, we’ve been primarily foundation-backed, so most of the rental assistance money that we have provided has been given to us by various local and national foundations, although primarily from an organization called Gary Community Investments here in Denver, Colorado. They’ve been a great and an early partner, so we’ll definitely shout them out for the early support of the work. I think longer term we’re in the process of transitioning to being an administrator of public dollars, although that brings with it you know a lot of different administrative burdens that an organization such as ours needs to navigate.
Meg Steinberg: And as funding, these are not just loans, these are grants?
Zach Neumann: That’s correct, yeah. We are primarily doing grants to tenants who are unable to pay their rent.
Meg Steinberg: And do you think that at the level that you’ve seen, Coloradans are receiving enough funding from state and federal sources, or do you anticipate a greater need? Do you see greater need right now and anticipate an even greater need in the coming months?
Zach Neumann: Yeah, it’s interesting. So, in Colorado, the state legislature passed $55 million in rental assistance and then our share of the federal rental assistance, our share of that, $25 billion passed in December, is about $385 million. So, the total pot right now is $440 million. So, question one, is will that be enough? In January alone, the state received $53 million in rental assistance applications. So, the money is moving quickly.
And then the second question is, how fast can this be processed? So, while they received $53 million in request in January, they’re still working through that backlog and every day the backlog seems to get bigger and bigger. That’s not a criticism of the state or the agencies that are processing it, but that $53 million is something like 15,000 or 16,000 applications, and it’s a real capacity issue to go through the paperwork, talk to each person, get to check out the door. There’s a lot of work that goes into each payment and so I think there’s a money question but there’s also just a speed to deal or a time of processing question that a lot of actors in the space are still trying to resolve.
Meg Steinberg: Well, this has jumped exponentially during the pandemic. The housing stability issue and eviction as you said, you were working on this even before the pandemic. What kind of levels did you see prior to the pandemic?
Zach Neumann: God, nothing like this. I mean, I think eviction has been a hidden problem in the United States for a really long time, but in Colorado, I think the eviction lab data suggests that in any given year, 3% to 5% of tenants might face an eviction proceeding. Right now, one in five Americans is not paying rent, bump that up to a full 20% of the population that’s evictable, and you’ve gone from something that’s like a really cruel difficult problem that just destroys lives to something that could impact someone you know, like could affect your neighbor or your friend or a family member. It is a problem that has just scaled so dramatically in a way we never thought would happen.
Meg Steinberg: We are speaking with Zach Neumann, founder of COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado. We’ll be right back.
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Meg Steinberg: And we are back now with Zach Neumann, founder of COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado. Talk us through other states, they have similar programs. Did you model yours after others? It seems as though — we’ve discussed this. You were right there at the beginning of the need. You anticipated it, but how did you look to others? How did others influence you or have you been influencing other states?
Zach Neumann: You know, I think there are just a really large number of great national groups that have kind of arisen in the wake of COVID to respond to housing instability and then of course there are a lot of groups that have been working on this issue for years and years. So, I think what we’ve seen on the landscape is a lot of cross-state collaboration, both in terms of publication of research but sharing of legal practices, talking about rental assistance.
In a lot of respects, what’s been so interesting and compelling about this moment is that it’s brought together advocates who may be were working in their silos in their city or their community or their state, and now they’re much more a part of a national conversation on how we respond to this, both during COVID but also after COVID. Because really, non-payment eviction shouldn’t happen. That’s not something that should take place in the united states. We have lawyers, we have rental assistance. It’s a great investment and so I think what we’re going to see potentially coming out of this moment is a lot more dedication to ensuring that people aren’t removed from their homes when they’re simply unable to pay their rent.
Meg Steinberg: And so toward that end for anyone in law school or fresh out, or beyond, how can they help to accept and allow others who don’t have a law degree yet to come in and assist you or any other program in other states like this one?
Zach Neumann: Oh, man. We could use all the help we could get, for sure, It’s a crazy journey and there’s always a need for intakers and volunteers and navigators. So, if you’re in Colorado or you have an interest in Colorado, we’d love to hear from you. But other states have programs as well, so I mean a great place to turn is the local legal services office wherever you live. These folks obviously are all over the country. They’ve been doing this work for years. They’re usually the best people in the community at it. They certainly are here in Denver. Our CLS attorneys are the very best and so that’s a great way to plug in with the work and learn more about housing and eviction law.
Meg Steinberg: You know, this is an all-encompassing need. You’ve touched upon some of those aspects and the passion you hear it in your voice and clearly in dedicating the last year and beyond that through pro bono work. And I can imagine that it is incredibly rewarding on so many levels, the least of which is you’ve got something tangible at the end of the day. Someone gets to remain in their home. But why is housing stability so important to you? You saw this need right from the very beginning and why?
Zach Neumann: I mean, I think my — I don’t know, passion or investment in this issue is from experiences I had as a kid, but then also what the data says. When I was a kid and an adolescent, I had a decent number of friends who faced eviction or foreclosure and you know those were the friends that would then miss debate practice the next day or wouldn’t show up for football, or who’d really have trouble getting their schoolwork done. I think just seeing firsthand what it does to families, what it does to children and families was really convicting from a young age.
But then the second thing is that the data is overwhelmingly powerful. I mean, families that experience eviction, it’s much harder for people in the family who are working to keep their jobs. Children in household really struggle with grades and attendance after an eviction. Health goes down. Mental health goes down. Ability to get rehoused is severely impacted and people often jump around and experience housing instability, literally for years for up to seven years after they’ve been evicted.
So, really, when you look at the economic data, all of those kind of perceptions and feelings from growing up around this problem to some extent really become a lot more pronounced and so for me it’s kind of both of those things, but it is just unfathomable to imagine that one in five Americans, this year and next, might go through this experience. And I just think it’s something we’ve got to do everything in our power to stop.
Meg Steinberg: You’ve had a varied career. Let’s talk about law school first. Why did you go? What inspired you?
Zach Neumann: That’s a good question and the question I ask now is I pay off my student loans every day, still. You know, I was doing something much different at the time. I was living in DC. I was working at the World Bank, working on like rule of law, governance, how you build justice systems in post-conflict countries and this was more than 10 years ago now and I just kept coming back to law. In DC, they’ve got all these great night programs at GW in Georgetown and I said, “I want to do that. I want to learn how to do this. I want to get good at it. I want to figure it out because I think it’ll intersect nicely with the work I’m doing now.” Life changes. I graduated law school and left the World Bank at the same time and kind of never went back to that space, but really glad I went to law school and really enjoyed the experience, and even more enjoyed the work I get to do today.
Meg Steinberg: What sort of the most important takeaway from law school? Was it the research, the writing, the advocacy or is it just sort of another tool in your toolkit?
Zach Neumann: You know what was interesting is being a night student and working full-time, you don’t have the traditional law school experience, you’re kind of rushing to study, you’re like sneaking your law books into work and hoping your boss didn’t catch you to some extent, you’re like really tired in class. But I think having that experience maybe showed me that you can do different things with the law and that there is room for flexibility and that bringing law into other areas of work like pairing law with rental assistance in the case of what we’re doing now or taking law and using it to inform research related to a policy problem can really be interesting. So, I think having that early lay between — excuse me, early overlay between what I was doing and my day job and then going to law school at night has kind of, I don’t know, formed the way we approach our practice around evictions.
Meg Steinberg: With that in mind, what would your advice be to someone who’s in law school right now and maybe doesn’t have that same perspective or that ability to see it?
Zach Neumann: I don’t know if I would frame this as a regret. Regret is not the right word, but it took me so long in life to like go off the path and to try something a little weird or to do my own thing. I think my advice would be, you know, if you don’t get that big law job or that clerkship you want, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think sometimes these experiences that we’re thrown into or where we have to be a little bit entrepreneurial, can actually be the most rewarding in life and it never feels like it when you’ve missed on the thing you’ve wanted, but I don’t know.
This project, for me, has been really rewarding and I think absent a few crazy things happening like I wouldn’t be doing this today, so I don’t know. I think kind of chart your own path and try different things because I think they can be really rewarding.
Meg Steinberg: And so it sounds like you’ve done political campaigns, World Bank, firms. I mean, what’s been your favorite experience or is it just pulling it all together and realizing it then later in life?
Zach Neumann: Oh, this. This has been my favorite experience. I mean, it took me 35 years to get here, but I think this is like the work I find most enjoyable and I’ve never had this level of passion for anything I’ve done. I mean, it’s tough, right, like we’re scrapping every day trying to raise money to pay our small team or to pay people’s rent, but I don’t know. It’s been really rewarding and challenging and I don’t think I would trade what I’m getting to do now for anything.
Meg Steinberg: When the pandemic is done, will you continue this work and I’m assuming the pandemic will be at least phase out? Will you continue this work? Will you shift to another idea or passion? Do you see other areas opening up through this exposure?
Zach Neumann: I think this notion of bringing rental assistance and legal services and research and policy together into one shop is powerful. I think it makes you a better advocate for your clients and so COVID or not, we’re going to continue to do this. Our goal is to stop all evictions in Colorado and when the pandemic is over, it just means we’ll get to be in person which will be a lot of fun because we’ve been working on Zoom for over a year now. We’re coming up on a year, but I don’t think we’re going anywhere.
Meg Steinberg: Thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it.
Zach Neumann: Yeah.
Meg Steinberg: Zach Neumann, founder of COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project in Colorado. Again, thanks for joining us. Thanks for reminding us too about how housing stability impacts everyone on so many levels.
Zach Neumann: No, Megan. Thank you for having me on.
Meg Steinberg: Absolutely and I hope you all enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on Apple Podcast and you can also reach us on Facebook at ABA for law students and on Twitter at ABA LSD. That’s it for now. I’m Meg Steenberg, thank you for listening.
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