No Shelter: Pandemic-fueled recession leaves Central Valley families with nowhere to go

Faced with an increasing shortage of affordable housing, massive job losses, and a pandemic, many San Joaquin Valley families are finding it difficult to find shelter when that’s the one thing health officials tell them to do. This crisis isn’t exactly new to the Fresno area, especially for Black, Latino, and Asian communities in the region. In this series – a partnership between The Fresno Bee, Fresnoland, and the Retro Report – we look at the history of housing instability and segregation in Fresno, the current bubbling eviction tsunami, and different proposals to address this crisis in the future.

Threatened with eviction in Fresno, Visalia or Merced? Renters have the right to fight

Threatened with eviction in Fresno, Visalia or Merced? Renters have the right to fight

Renters in California are protected from eviction if their inability to pay rent is because of COVID-19-related income loss. But, there’s been an apparent surge in landlord actions against tenants recently after a ban on all evictions expired.

Calls for assistance in housing cases to the Central California Legal Services have tripled in the past two weeks, with dozens of renters a week from Fresno, Merced and Visalia seeking help to stay in their homes, according to Patience Milrod, organization director, and Brandi Snow, lead housing attorney.

It’s unclear how many eviction cases were filed in superior courts of nearby counties recently, as records are not immediately available. Unlawful detainers [eviction-related documents] filed in the Fresno County Superior Court are not available for 60 days, according to the Fresno County Superior Court website.

Most often, renters receive a “notice to quit” delivered in person or taped to the door. While this is not an eviction notice, the paperwork often prompts renters to give in and leave their homes anyway, Snow told the Fresno Bee.

“There is always the concern about the trauma being evicted puts on families,” Snow said, explaining that children may have to change schools or a parent’s commute to work may become longer. “That’s assuming housing can be found.”

Renters have the right to fight back and stay put, she said.

For now, Snow urged any renter who has received a notice from their landlord, or a summons to court, to “please call us.”

Current California renter protections from eviction

Under current state law, renters who have COVID-19-related economic impacts have protections from eviction for failure to pay rent from March 1, 2020 through Jan. 31, 2021, if they meet certain requirements.

A renter must complete a declaration stating that rent due from March through January is unpaid because of COVID-related economic impacts, and the renter must pay 25% of rent due each month, between September and January.

Even if no rent is paid, renters are protected from eviction for non-payment until Feb. 1, 2021 if they have completed the declaration that they have lost income because of COVID.

The landlord can still try to recover unpaid rent in small claims court after March 1, 2021.

All of those protections were granted by California legislators under AB 3088, the COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020.

Courts are moving forward with evictions based on lease violations, including for health and safety violations and event nonpayment if it was not declared as COVID-related.

Tenants are advised to follow instructions from both AB 3088 and the CDC moratorium to avoid eviction.

The new state bill still puts the burden on tenants to proactively make a case to their landlord as to why they can’t pay their rent. To avoid eviction under the CDC moratorium, tenants also have to provide a declaration monthly to their landlord affirming their inability to pay rent.

Click here for a video explainer of current renter protections.

Surge in landlord actions against tenants

So why is there now a surge in actions from landlords?

The previous law that expired in September limited evictions more than the current law.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and state of emergency, the California Judicial Council had prohibited the court from hearing any eviction cases beginning in April. That prohibition expired Sept. 2, and was essentially replaced with the current law.

Courts began hearing eviction-related cases in September for cases in which the renter allegedly violated the lease for reasons other than nonpayment. Current law said evictions for failure to pay rent could not begin before Oct. 5.

Now, all of those cases can be filed and can be heard, including cases for nonpayment.

Tenants can file cases. Renters can still win based on current protections.

Renter rights explainer.jpg
Renter rights under AB 3088, COVID-19 Tenant Relief Act of 2020. This image is from an explainer created by several tenant-rights organizations, including California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Tenants Together and Inner City Law Center.

“This is a very complicated law, protections are not straightforward,” Snow said of recently legislated renter protections. “Most people don’t know what they’re entitled to right now. And, there are landlords that bully their tenants into voluntarily leaving.”

Snow said she is aware of several incidents in the last few months. There have been successful eviction cases in the last month where courts ordered tenants out of their homes for lease violations about health and safety.

For example, one person was evicted as a result of suspected criminal activity at the rental property. Another tenant was ordered to leave after he refused to allow the landlord inside his unit to fix essential plumping issues.

“I have not seen any (recent) cases that were purely for nonpayment. The court has rejected those cases, so far,” Snow said. “We’re trying to be very aggressive in defending these.”

Historically, a majority of evictions in Fresno are for nonpayment of rent, according to research by Faith in the Valley. The organization reported people were evicted after owing between $750 and $1,350, most often after missing one month of rent.

Tenants usually don’t have legal representation, while landlords do. In Fresno, the city council recently asked staff to consider a right to counsel policy that could require all tenants to have access to free representation if they qualify.

Snow said the process isn’t easy. “It’s complicated, ugly and messy. And we really want to help.”

Speak with a lawyer if you receive a notice. There may be free representation available to you.

Contact Central California Legal Services legal advice and referral line at 800-675-8001. Help is available Mondays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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