Follow Fresnoland’s reporting
Fresnoland, a team of journalists reporting on housing, water and neighborhood inequality at The Fresno Bee, is reporting on the city’s failure to protect renters from unhealthy conditions in low-income housing. Read the stories and follow this investigation here.
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During its investigation of the Manchester Arms apartment complex in Fresno, The Fresno Bee found three instances where the landlord told city code enforcement that he was evicting tenants who filed a complaint with the agency.
Evicting tenants for reporting violations to code enforcement is illegal, but not once did officers ask the reason for eviction or if it was in retaliation for the tenant’s report. Simply, agency officials say, it is not their job to get involved in civil cases like evictions.
But whose job is it?
Neutral mediators who would guide tenants and landlords to a compromise, according to Fresno city officials. Housing advocates, however, say lawyers should be the ones to defend tenants and advocate for them.
Both officials and organizers say their approach will keep Fresnans housed as the pandemic rent moratorium end date, June 30, nears.
Many tenants don’t know what to do or whom to call when they receive a notice, which often leads to a default judgment for eviction. While some tenants don’t know their rights, others can’t afford to defend them. A 2019 Faith in the Valley study found that less than 1% of tenants have legal representation in court, compared to 76% of landlords. Currently low-income tenants facing eviction are referred to Central California Legal Services, which has six attorneys and more than 300 open eviction cases.
“There are some holes and gaps that need to be filled in a long-term solution kind of way,” Alexandra Alvarado, Faith in the Valley housing organizer, said.
In early January, Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel presented a Right to Counsel proposal which would provide tenants with a defense attorney in eviction court, similar to how public defenders provide free legal assistance to criminal defendants, if necessary.
The proposal would cover education and outreach, legal aid and direct legal representation for tenants facing eviction.
Thursday, City Council President Luis Chavez is set to announce the Rental Mediation Program proposal that pulls from what community organizers have presented, but focuses on what he says “will work really well in Fresno” — outreach and a neutral mediation program between tenants and landlords.
Both proposals include coverage of undocumented renters.
Evictions in Fresno
“If you opened your door and you had a letter that you must evict and move out in three days, what would you do? Ask anybody that, not just the people that are already in crisis,” Leadership Counsel policy advocate Ivanka Saunders said.
On average, more than 2,000 people are evicted in Fresno each year, according to a Faith in the Valley report.
The coronavirus moratorium has decreased the number of evictions significantly, but many, like former Manchester Arms tenant Inez Hernandez, have lost their housing during the pandemic.
Hernandez lost her eviction case in a default judgment — the court did not receive a response from Hernandez regarding her eviction notice within the given five-day window. Hernandez said she never received the notice and only found out from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, when it was too late.
Weeks prior, she had filed a complaint to code enforcement regarding a broken heater, broken stove, leaking tub and mold in her unit. The issues were still unresolved the week she was evicted.
Her story is not uncommon.
“Nobody should be evicted, especially for trying to get the landlord to make their home livable and especially during a global pandemic,” Faith in the Valley regional adviser Janine Nkosi wrote via email of Hernandez’s situation. “It’s unconscionable, but sadly it’s not an isolated incident.”
Nkosi said each week housing advocates hear from renters in need.
“The vast majority of people who need assistance, don’t know about the rent assistance program or about the COVID-19 eviction protections,” Nkosi wrote.
Right to Counsel
What the proposal entails
$1 million annually.
$150,000 to $200,000 annually.
Pass-through pandemic relief funds and state dollars.
An annual fee of $2 to $3 attached to the Rental Housing registry to fund the program long-term, along with funding from pandemic relief funds.
Three attorneys dedicated to RTC, a full-time legal secretary, 9 to 12 part-time legal clerks and legal interns.
Two law clerks who would work closely with the city’s code enforcement.
The Right to Counsel proposal
The local Right to Counsel coalition is made up of Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel. The group has been pushing for a program that would provide tenants with education and outreach, and direct advocacy.
Saunders said the proposal encompasses people facing both lawful and unlawful evictions, including for retaliation and nonpayment of rent during the moratorium.
Right to counsel has been successful according to an independent study of the six Shriver Pilot for Civic Counsel programs conducted from 2015 to 2019. Across the six projects, only 3% of tenants who got help were formally evicted. A San Francisco right to counsel program kept a majority of tenants who needed help in their homes within the program’s first six months.
Right to counsel programs across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York City, have proven to be less expensive than the projected costs of “disruptive displacement” and homeless services, according to independent studies.
The proposal before the Fresno City Council details a four-pronged approach to reducing homelessness — outreach and education, legal aid, direct legal representation and a program evaluation.
“Research has shown that the first step to homelessness is an eviction,” Alvarado said.
The $1 million Right to Counsel proposal budget includes hiring three attorneys and about a dozen legal aides and interns to serve about 1,000 clients as well as contracting with Stout Risius Ross, LLC to independently evaluate the program’s success. Approximately $200,000 would be used for outreach.
Chavez said while elements of the RTC proposal are good, the program assumes litigation, doesn’t always prevent eviction and would be “good for lawyers, bad for tenants.”
Saunders and Alvarado disagree.
Saunders said the program would push for educating tenants and landlords on their rights and provide free legal aid to help those who receive eviction notices and reduce the number of cases that go to court.
“We hope that litigation is the last straw,” Saunders said.
“People need to know someone has their back and can explain the jargon to them,” Alvarado said.
According to Saunders, the goal is to limit the number of cases that go to eviction court through education, legal aid and interventions before litigation. However, if litigation is necessary, it would make sure that tenants facing evictions have representation.
“We did not approach a right to counsel program to state it’s only for those who are illegally being evicted,” Saunders said. “That will not cover anybody; that will not protect the majority of people that are facing a crisis right now.”
Saunders said the coronavirus relief funding from the state and federal governments provided “an opportunity here to do a proposal that is not just half-baked, that is fully vetted and fleshed out and really helpful.”
The mediation program proposal
Chavez said his own “safety net system” — the Rental Mediation Program — centers around neutral mediation between tenants and landlords facing illegal eviction cases.
The goal of the program, he said, is to avoid litigation by identifying potentially unlawful evictions and intervening before they get to court.
Leadership Counsel stated in a Monday news release that the mediation program is “deeply flawed and falls far too short of actually addressing Fresno’s eviction crisis.” Nkosi told The Bee that Leadership Counsel and Faith in the Valley had not seen the proposal prior to Friday.
A key difference between the RTC and RMP proposals is whether tenants will have someone in their corner. While the RTC proposal would provide legal aid and direct representation for tenants, the RMP proposal centers around neutral mediation and clearly states there would not be a lawyer-client relationship between either party and the mediator.
Another difference is that the RMP program focuses solely on unlawful evictions, which housing advocates say would not be enough.
If Chavez’s plan were passed, tenants and landlords would be notified of the program through the Rental Housing Registry, which keeps track of the 85,000 rental units in Fresno.
Tenants who received an eviction notice would fill out and submit a questionnaire about their eviction to the City Attorney’s office within a five-day window.
A law clerk would then review the questionnaire with the help of code enforcement attorneys. If the eviction seems unlawful, they will reach out to the tenant and landlord to request any further documents and analyze the case. The clerk would then serve as the mediator between the landlord and tenant if the two agree to meet, according to the RMP resolution.
“The goal would be for the landlord and tenant to come to an agreement to avoid a court proceeding,” the RMP Resolution reads. “Whether an agreement is reached, both parties will leave the meeting more educated about their rights and responsibilities.”
Otherwise, the law clerk would draft an opinion based on the claims provided to them that could be used if the case goes to court, Chavez said.
Chavez said the city attorney’s office is in conversation with the presiding eviction court judge about the potential program.
“We want to get their buy-in so that they sign off on this, so whenever we create this paper trail of the mediation and the process of everything that occurred … we’re essentially preempting a lot of that legal work that needs to happen in the court, where the judge, by the time they get a case, if it does go there, they will have all the analysis,” Chavez said.
Having an analysis completed before litigation, Chavez said, could make the judge’s decision easier, but the goal would be to stop a case from getting to that point.
Chavez said the mediation program would be a “structural fix and not a band-aid approach” funded by a small annual fee baked into the Rental Housing Registry along with using state and federal pandemic relief funding.
According to Chavez, he has successfully directed a version of the proposal in his district during the pandemic.
“Everything that I wrote into this proposal, I’ve actually been doing it for the past eight months in my district alone,” Chavez said.
He said that for a period of about eight months, he had the city attorney’s office review the leases of tenants who came to him with landlord issues, and that they analyzed the situation and at times sent letters to the landlords.
“I know it works because I did a pilot program,” Chavez said.
The mediation resolution is on the City Council agenda April 8 and can be read in advance of the meeting.