Even before Fresno City Council President Luis Chavez unveiled his eviction prevention proposal, housing advocates criticized his plans, insisting that a mediation-only approach to tenant protections is inadequate.

The Fresno City Council is reviewing dueling proposals — Chavez’s Rental Mediation Proposal and the Right to Counsel Proposal — as the coronavirus rent moratorium nears its June 30 end date.

Chavez said the Rental Mediation Program that he proposed to the council Thursday afternoon will create a “safety net” for vulnerable tenants. The proposal outlines neutral mediation between tenants who are facing eviction and their landlords.

The proposal serves as an alternative to what housing advocates have been pushing — a free, legal representation in eviction court, similar to public defenders in criminal cases.

A coalition made up of Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel presented a Right to Counsel proposal in January. Their proposal would include legal aid and pre-litigation steps, as well as free representation for anyone facing an eviction, if the case needs to go to court.

Saunders said the coalition and Chavez were “far from a middle ground.”

“It’s obvious that we have a lot of conversation left,” Chavez said, adding that he wanted to re-center the conversation. “This conversation has always been about helping and serving and supporting the vulnerable populations in our community.”

Mediation isn’t enough

Leadership Counsel policy advocate Ivanka Saunders said Chavez’s proposal was a “half-baked, so-called rental mediation program” that would only help a small fraction of those in need. Many public comments from housing advocates shared a similar sentiment.

Amber Crowell, assistant professor of sociology at Fresno State and regional housing coordinator for Faith in the Valley, who published a study on evictions in Fresno in 2019, said lawyers are key in helping tenants.

“We have a lot of structural housing problems in this city, but one problem that has a straight link to evictions and homelessness is that the legal process is deeply and inexcusably flawed,” Crowell said.

“From what we observed, tenants need attorneys to navigate a very complicated legal process, not mediation, not a law clerk, an attorney, an expert in housing law to represent their case,” she added.

Several City Council members supported the housing advocates and said that more than mediation is required.

“We’re facing a potential wave of evictions and my concern is that we are using a plastic Solo cup to try and catch this wave when what we really need is a big wooden bucket in order to address this issue,” said Council Vice President Nelson Esparza, who represents District 7. “I think that a big wooden bucket in terms of an eviction deterrence strategy probably involves a real counsel for folks.”

He said that Chavez’s proposal is a good starting point and that an option for both mediation and right to counsel was needed.

Agreeing, Tyler Maxwell, District 4 councilmember, said he wouldn’t be comfortable voting for a proposal without legal representation.

“We can’t allow the pursuit of perfection to get in the way of us making progress on this complicated legal matter,” Miguel Arias, District 3 councilmember, said. He added that he wants to work with community organizations for a solution.

Arias and Esmeralda Soria, District 1 council member, said a solution needs to be enacted soon.

“The stakes are too high here to be so partisan and divided,” said Mike Karbassi, District 2 councilmember, urging a compromise.

Garry Bredefeld, District 6 councilmember, and Alexandra Alvarado, community organizer with Faith in the Valley, questioned how Chavez’s program would differ from a mediation program already run by the Better Business Bureau. Currently, when an eviction case makes it to court, the tenant and landlord must go through mediation prior to the court date. The BBB did not return requests for comments Friday.

“We’re not understanding how this will be different than what’s going on,” Alvarado said. She, like other housing advocates, argued that the current and proposed mediation programs do not address the “critical need for structural changes” in the eviction process.

Bredefeld said a new mediation program was not needed because one already exists as well as other tenant assistance programs. He said he is not in support of the right to counsel program, either.

What will the proposals address?

Hours before the RMP was introduced to the City Council, Jessica Ramirez gave an emotional call to action that ended in sobs in front of City Hall as she clung to the documents that left her and her five children homeless for years.

“If you have the power, what is stopping you from making a change?” she said.

Ramirez, a member of Faith in the Valley, spoke during the Right to Counsel Coalition event with 20 to 30 people in attendance. She has an eviction on her record even though her case never went to court and her former landlord confirmed she was all paid up.

However, without legal aid to help her navigate the complicated system, she was unable to secure housing for her and her five children.

“I wake up every single day worrying about when I will ever have a secure home,” Ramirez said.

Inez Hernandez, another working mother with five children under 18, was evicted from Manchester Arms, an apartment complex that The Fresno Bee investigated in March. At the event, Hernandez said the city’s code enforcement department failed her, allowing her landlord to continue to operate unhealthy apartments and watched as she was evicted.

A young person holds a sign reading “Keep Our Children Housed,” as Inez Hernandez, a mother of four who was recently evicted from the Manchester Arms apartment complex, speaks during a press conference at City Hall, April 8, 2021, held by the Right to Counsel coalition. The coalition, is seeking help in implementing legal support and protection for renters, who face evictions, unsafe living conditions, and other problems. The coalition, with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Faith in the Valley, students from Fresno State, faith leaders, and people who have been evicted. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“How am I supposed to teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in … If they believe in something and they know something is right they should stand up for themselves, but they’re watching me and all of us here today stand up for what is right,” Hernandez said. “All they’ve seen so far is so many people fail us.”

Ramirez and Hernandez are just two of the thousands of renters in Fresno who have faced evictions.

On average, more than 2,000 tenants are faced with unlawful detainers, known as evictions, in the city of Fresno, according to a 2019 study of evictions in Fresno conducted by Faith in the Valley.

More than 60% of those cases are lost by default eviction, meaning the tenant fails to respond to the court within the allotted five-day window. For those that do go to court, only 1% of tenants have lawyers on their side, compared to the more than 70% of landlords who are represented by lawyers, the local study showed.

With a jump in evictions expected in July, Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel created a four-pronged proposal to mitigate evictions. The $1 million pilot program proposal includes education and outreach, pre-litigation legal aid, free legal counsel for tenants and a program evaluation. The program would rely on one-time federal coronavirus relief funds.

Members of the RTC Coalition point to the program’s success in other cities. In San Francisco there is a robust right to counsel program where they found that within the first six months of its launching, 67% of tenants who sought assistance from the program were able to stay housed. Also, independent studies of pilot programs in six counties found that only 3% of tenants who were given access to counsel were formally evicted.

Questioning that success rate, Chavez said he still had concerns.

He said San Francisco’s right to counsel program varies anywhere from 38% to 67% success rate. “That means that half of the folks that participate in that program are ultimately going to end up getting evicted.”

He also said he was concerned about the sustainability of a program that would rely on one-time funding and that was why he’s proposing the RMP.

In Chavez’s proposal, tenants with an eviction notice would fill out a questionnaire and submit it to City Hall before the five-day period before default. Chavez said the court case would be put on pause while a law clerk determines if the tenant is facing a potentially illegal eviction.

In the event that a law clerk deemed the eviction potentially unlawful, they would request more information from the landlord and tenant and mediate the case.

Chavez said he piloted the program in his own district and found that it had been successful. The program would rely on both one-time funds and an annual fee, baked into the Rental Housing Registry.

However, housing advocates and other City Council members are concerned it will not be enough.

Saunders said, “His approach is short-sighted and unacceptable.”

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