Approximately 2 million people, including children, are at risk of eviction when California’s eviction moratorium expires on Feb. 1. Nationwide, 6.7 million adults are likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, and Fresno may be in the eye of the storm.

“So many of our families are going to be swept up in that eviction tsunami,” said Janine Nkosi, a sociologist at Fresno State and housing advocate in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Renters’ advocates say that the looming expiration of the eviction moratorium creates an urgency in dealing with the state’s affordable housing shortage as well as rental policies they say are inadequate and too complicated, inevitably failing to protect vulnerable people who live at the mercy of ruthless and unscrupulous landlords.

The stories told to The Fresno Bee by people facing housing insecurity highlight a complex tenant/landlord system that leaves renters — particularly young, lower-income, people of color — vulnerable, powerless and without a place to call home.

Sixty-day eviction notices that went out last month push renters to the edge of an eviction cliff, according to Blanca Ojeda, organizer for Faith in the Valley.

Tenants of Harvest Garden, a 54-unit apartment complex in Livingston, received those notices. Among those evicted is a 41-year old mother of three who has lived in the complex for 27 years. The mother and her sons earn minimum wage, and their income falls far short of what is needed for a three-bedroom apartment in Turlock or Merced. The family has moved in with the woman’s brother.

Another family — a husband and wife who are seasonal farmworkers — also received an eviction notice. Their son, who lives with them, attends UC Merced, so they’d like to stay in the area. But the family has discovered that they cannot find an affordable two-bedroom apartment in the Merced area, said Ojeda, who is aiding them.

“They can’t afford a $1,000 rent, and there’s probably going to be utilities and everything else that they just would not be able to afford.” They can afford “something around $800, at most $900,” Ojeda said. The median residential rent in Merced was $1,097 in 2019, according to the Census ACS survey.

In addition, records obtained from the Merced Superior Court show that landlords filed 19 Unlawful Detainers to evict their tenants in December.

“They’re forcing families out of stable housing and into overcrowded homes with other family members or friends, into motels, slum housing, or into shelters, their cars or onto the streets,” Nkosi said.

There are housing laws that should create protections for tenants and landlords. “But it’s complicated,” Nkosi said. “The system is complex; the way you read and try to interpret and understand the laws are confusing. It is hard to navigate the laws, the policies, the court system.”

Housing problems in Fresno

The problem extends beyond a few apartment complexes in Merced.

Jessica Ramirez stands in a Fresno park near her current home on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. The mother of six has been dealing with housing insecurity. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Jessica Ramirez, 25 and a mother of six, tells the story of her eviction, homelessness and ongoing housing insecurity to anyone who has time to hear it. Born and raised in Fresno, Ramirez attended Roosevelt High School and has lived most of her life in the southeast area.

She was 18 years old and had unknowingly added her signature to the lease of a home rented by her father. She would find out, years later, that the landlord had gotten an eviction order that is now on her record.

Now fully employed, Ramirez cannot find a landlord who’s willing to take a chance on her, leaving her and her children in constant move — hotels, parks, shelters — and literally afraid of what comes next.

“I should not have been forced to choose between my housing and my children’s health and safety just because I am a renter,” Ramirez said. “No parent should.”

Michaela Bennett, 58, “hangs out” in the area of Cedar and Herndon avenues in northeast Fresno and sleeps in her car, parked mostly in hospital parking lots, or occasionally checks into a shelter or motel room to refresh. Like others, Bennett said she is lost in bureaucracy and protracted processes that have kept her without a home for almost three years.

A grim situation

One in five U.S. adult renters, adding up to 14.3 million adults living in rental housing, is not caught up on rent, according to the U.S. Census data collected Nov. 25 to Dec. 7, 2020.

Housing insecurity patterns tend to follow existing patterns of inequity. Renters of color were more likely to report that their household was behind on rent — 29% of Black renters, 26% of Latino renters, and 21% of Asian renters said they were not up to date on rent, compared with 14% of white renters. The rate was 18% for American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial adults taken together.

In California, the number of renters reporting that they were behind on rent topped 1 million in November. California renters owe about $1.7 billion in back rent, according to an estimate by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. That number is likely to grow significantly as the pandemic rages, decimating businesses and employment opportunities; millions of workers in California have lost their jobs because of business closures and mass layoffs. The state’s unemployment is 8.2%, and thousands of businesses have shuttered their doors.

What it means for Fresno

“There’s an affordable housing crisis and displacement in the Central Valley,” Veronica Garibay, co-founder of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said in an October 2020 interview. “So, it’s really important that we, as a community, and the region, recognize and acknowledge and start working with the fact that we have an affordable housing crisis and very severe overcrowding, and rents that are rising.”

Families in the central San Joaquin Valley families are at greater risk of eviction for several reasons: It is the fastest growing region in the state, but also among the poorest — where over half of renters pay more than half their income for rent.

According to the June 2020 California Housing Partnership Corp. report, Fresno has a severe housing crisis especially for low income earners, with 69% of extremely low-income households paying more than 50% of their income on housing costs, compared to just 3% of moderate income households.

As of September 2020, there are 212,753 lower income renter households in the San Joaquin Valley, and 142,480 of them do not have access to an affordable home.

Edward Orozco Flores of UC Merced’s Labor and Community Center said that the central San Joaquin Valley has one of the lowest rates of homeownership with only 49.5% of the residents owning a home, and ranks third in the state, after Los Angeles and San Diego, among areas with the highest number of renters.

According to the January 2021 data from apartmentlist.com, Fresno is No. 3 among the nation’s 100 largest cities in the fastest rent increase. Since last month, rents in Fresno have gone up 1.3%, and by 7.9% since the pandemic started.

Median rents in Fresno stand at $961 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,196 for a two-bedroom. After paying the high cost of housing, very low income households in Fresno County need an additional $17,074 in income each year to meet their basic needs.

“We need more rent assistance; we need to build more affordable housing units, and we need more community ownership of land and housing,” Janine Nkosi said. “The housing system has clearly failed us.”

Your landlord may still evict you, pandemic or not

Federal policies protect homeowners who miss mortgage payments during national emergencies like the pandemic. Renters, on the other hand, enjoy no such protection. The effort to bridge this policy gap led the state to place a moratorium on evictions. The law, AB 3088, bars evictions as long as renters pay at least 25% of their rent and attest to financial hardship, but this protection ends on Jan. 31, 2021.

Meanwhile, Brandi Snow, housing attorney with the Central California Legal Services, said renters should be aware that they can still face eviction, even with the moratorium.

“The current eviction moratorium is only a moratorium on the basis of non-payment of rent. So we’re seeing cases where landlords, who aren’t getting the rent, are instead finding other reasons,” Snow said.

She explained that a landlord still has the right to deal with health and safety violations, and may initiate eviction for a relatively minor concern such as having more people in a unit than the lease allows. “But we know that it’s probably a pretext, and then it’s on us to prove that that’s not the real reason, that the real reason they want to get rid of this person is non-payment of rent. But that is hard to prove.”

What to do if you’re facing an eviction

Snow said that AB 3088 — the current law — bars evictions as long as renters pay at least 25% of their rent and attest to financial hardship, but the protection expires soon, unless it is renewed.

Renters should know the laws, their rights within the law, and how to protect themselves when they get an eviction notice, Snow said.

First, COVID-related protections have to be invoked by the tenant. “They’re not automatic,” she said. People erroneously believe that COVID protections preclude all evictions. They do not. “That’s not true for a lot of evictions; it’s true for rent-based evictions.”

Snow said people erroneously believe that they’re automatically protected because they lost their job to COVID or have reduced hours or have had COVID and were sick and didn’t get paid.

“The reality is — all of those protections — whether the federal CDC order or the state’s AB 3088, require the tenant to provide a declaration to the landlord that says, ‘I have this COVID-related income loss, and therefore you can’t evict me,’” Snow said.

After tenants file the required declaration with their landlord, Snow said, they must remember “that rent is being deferred; they [tenants] still owe it, and that is a big concern.”

If you get an eviction while the moratorium is in place, Snow advises that you take these simple steps.

Make sure the eviction notice you receive includes a declaration form with it. Complete the declaration that says you have a COVID hardship as soon you get the notice.

If you are unsure of what to do next, call the CCLS legal advice line — 800-675-8001 — and a CCLS adviser will walk you through it.

“In the time of COVID,” Snow said, “the easiest way to avoid going any further is to do that declaration correctly and get it submitted correctly. Then the landlord has to wait until Feb. 1” or later, if there is an extension of the moratorium.

The good news — lawmakers are seeking an extension until the end of 2021. AB 15 and AB 16, the legislation introduced by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, cites continuing economic hardships from a resurging COVID and extended stay-at-home orders and would extend the protections until Dec. 31.

“The one important thing that has come out of this COVID crisis is that a huge spotlight has been put on the housing crisis that has long existed, well before COVID was ever around,” Nkosi said. “And now we know that we have a very deeply flawed economic and housing system, and we must transform it.”

Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the editor of the Fresnoland Lab at The Fresno Bee, a team of journalists focused on reporting stories at the intersection of housing, water, neighborhoods and inequality.

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