By Shawn Chitnis

WESTMINSTER, Colo. (CBS4) – City and community leaders celebrated the opening of a new legal aid clinic for renters in Adams and Bloomfield counties Monday to help people unaware of their rights in a competitive housing market.

“Most renters aren’t aware of the legal options available to them,” said Emma Pinter, Westminster City Council Member. “We want to make sure that legal literacy is available to all in our city.”

The move comes over a decade after local cities created policies to provide renters with protections, but Pinter says they still need to do more to help. Funding from some of those cities and counties will cover the cost to have attorneys and other legal staff available throughout the week. Some appointments will even take place at the Irving Street Library in Westminster.

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(credit: CBS)

“I just stepped out of my apartment and looked at the fire,” said Jakeisha McClarin, a renter in Westminster. “I was amazed, this was my fire so I didn’t know what to do.”

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(credit: CBS)

McClarin moved into the complex and signed a lease a week before a large fire displaced several people and damaged other units, making conditions difficult for residents. She wishes she knew all of her options before facing that tough situation in July. But McClarin is glad to see others will get the legal assistance they need in the future.

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Jakeisha McClarin (credit: CBS)

“I just had signed the lease. I’m thinking everything is going to be okay, then next thing you know, I see and hear people screaming ‘Fire!’” she said. “I’m kind of trapped in the lease, I can’t afford to break the lease and find another place.”

The clinic will operate with the help of Colorado Legal Services. Families will be eligible based on need, leaders say they want to help low-income families. Besides an issue related to a fire, residents could seek advice on pending evictions or safety issues in their own unit.

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(credit: CBS)

It comes at a time when the cost to live in Colorado is high and just finding a place can be challenging for residents.

“The cost of rent has really gone up, and in some neighborhoods, it’s doubled in the fast five years,” said Pinter. “No one’s income has doubled.”

The clinic was created by a relatively new nonprofit in the area, United for A New Economy (UNE). This is the first major project for UNE, McClarin is a member of the group and speaking in support of their efforts including the clinic.

You can learn more about the clinic and the nonprofit by visiting their website, www.unecolorado.org.

“Just be prepared for a fire because you don’t know if you’re building’s prepared for it or not,” McClarin reflected on the lesson she learned. She’s still grateful others will have the help she need. “It’ll mean a great deal.”

Shawn Chitnis reports weeknights for CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Email him story ideas at smchitnis@cbs.com and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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