DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver City Council approved an ordinance Monday evening to provide legal assistance to residents facing eviction. Councilmembers say it is a necessary resource as protections started during the pandemic are going away but advocates for landlords and management companies argue that money could be better spent helping people pay for rent.

“This is a problem in the city of Denver and if there are ways that we can better support our community, we’re going to probably do that,” Councilmember Amanda Sawyer, District 5, told CBS4 before the vote. “So there are a lot of reasons why we would want to provide this legal support as well. The legal system is extremely confusing. Especially if English is not your first language, even if English is your first language.”

The Colorado Apartment Association says the vast majority of tenants are paying their rent through May 2021 and evictions are down compared to the previous year. City leaders and private analysts agree the supply of available units remains low compared to the demand to live in Denver and beyond the metro area.

“We think it’s bad public policy for the city to spend money to pay one group of citizens to sue another group of citizens,” said Drew Hamrick, the general counsel and senior vice president for legislative affairs with the CAA. “The biggest hurdle is that we need more housing units.”

Sawyer was the co-sponsor of the bill along with Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, who said the bill will now go to Mayor Hancock for his signature.

“Much more will be needed to correct the power imbalance between landlords and renters in this state,” she said in a statement. “But this is a first step in the right direction.”

Sawyer challenged the suggestion that evictions are low because the moratorium from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains in place but is set to expire. She says that without it, evictions would be higher and that even with that policy in place it is hard for some to prove they had a financial setback due to COVID-19.

“It makes more sense to provide legal representation during the eviction process so that the renters can understand what is happening to them, what challenges are facing them and potentially negotiate better outcomes for everyone involved,” she said on a video conference call.

Once approved by the mayor, staff would need to be hired to run the program and funding would be identified by the finance department. Sawyer said money from the federal stimulus package could cover it for the first few years. Hamrick worries about whether this type of resource can remain long-term even with outside funding.

“Establishing programs that don’t make sense in the long run still aren’t wise even though you have the money to do it,” he said on a video conference call.

Sawyer says up to one fourth of current renters could face eviction when the moratorium goes away. Councilmembers say this new legal defense program is set to begin on Sept. 1.

“What we can do as legislators is attempt to fix the things we can see that will make a demonstrative difference in our communities, and this is one of those things,” Sawyer said.