What's at stake?
Some research has shown that evictions are far more prevalent when tenants don't have legal representation. This program aims to balance that.
Fresno renters who are facing an eviction may be eligible for free legal help through the city’s Eviction Protection Program which was launched Tuesday.
Council Vice President Nelson Esparza and Councilmember Tyler Maxwell announced eligibility for the program is not affected by a renter’s income level or citizenship status.
Designed to fight potentially unlawful evictions, the program is initially funded with $750,000 from the city of Fresno’s allocation of federal rent assistance money.
“The majority of folks living throughout our city are renters, and when you’re a renter, that threat of eviction is one that always looms over you, warranted or not,” said Maxwell, co-author of the resolution and representative of District 4.
“When that power dichotomy exists, it often puts our tenants at a disadvantage, especially if they’re not aware of their fundamental rights as renters.”
What is the EPP?
The EPP provides free mediation, which can be requested by either a tenant or landlord, and also offers tenants free legal counsel similar to defense attorneys in criminal cases, if they qualify.
Erica Camarena, chief assistant city attorney, said the City Attorney’s office will conduct the screenings for who qualifies, but cannot represent the tenants because it is a conflict of interest.
The city has selected Emerzian Shankar Legal Inc., a two-person local law firm, to represent tenants who qualify for the program. Camarena said the city can contract additional law firms if the need outweighs the program’s current capacity.
Esparza said he believes allocating $750,000 of the $35 million the city received for federal rent assistance is a good use of funding. According to a July 19 report, the city had distributed a little over $4.3 million through the Fresno Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Maxwell said that the city must spend 65% of the allocated federal rent assistance funds by Sept. 30 and the remaining 35% by the end of the calendar year.
“Just like the eviction moratorium, we’re hopeful, and we feel fairly confident that that line will get pushed back, similar to the ERAP,” Maxwell said about the city’s ability to spend the funds in time. “It’s being extended because no municipality across the state or the country is able to expend those funds in a timely manner.”
However, Alexandra Alvarado, housing coordinator for Faith in the Valley, said the city should look for other sources of funding and not rely only on federal dollars that could expire very soon.
Currently, there is no guaranteed funding that ensures the program continues past the initial allocation of $750,000. Both Maxwell and Esparza said the future of the program will depend on its success in the first year — but what is defined as a success isn’t clear cut.
“When it comes to the legal system, winning and losing is very ambiguous,” Esparza said. “A win may be considered ‘Yes they are able to stay in their home.’ A win may also be considered ‘They are still evicted, but maybe they don’t have that eviction on their record.’
Maxwell said if even one family avoids homelessness as a result of the EPP, it is a success in his eyes.
Alvarado said that while the city’s program is a great opportunity for protecting tenants, it limits who qualifies and is not broad enough.
“There’s no clean, easy, black and white way when talking about an eviction,” Alvarado said. “The issue is, there are so many different ways that they are removed from their home. … It should be up to the judge to decide whether an eviction is unlawful or not.”
Faith in the Valley’s proposed right to counsel program would provide tenants with legal representation without screening for whether it’s a potentially unlawful eviction.
Alvarado said she hopes the city is open to listening to tenants and hearing their “expertise on how evictions go” because they are the ones with lived experience.
She also said that launching the program itself is not enough.
“Implementation and investment is key,” Alvarado said. “As we’ve seen with the Rental Housing Inspection Act, we’ve seen implementation be a big issue with how it’s supposed to go and take care of tenants.”
How the EPP works
If a tenant in Fresno receives an eviction notice, they can fill out an initial screening form online, in person or by phone. The city will then conduct a roughly 30-minute screening interview to determine whether to refer the tenant to Emerzian Shankar Legal Inc., the law firm contracted by the city to handle the cases.
“The qualifications are really just, as we mentioned, are you a tenant living in the city of Fresno, and is your eviction potentially unlawful,” Christina Roberson, the assistant city attorney, said.
The tenant may be asked additional questions to determine whether the eviction may be unlawful. Esparza said examples of unlawful evictions are comprehensive, including retaliation for calling code enforcement, nonpayment of rent during the coronavirus eviction moratorium, and landlords failing to notify tenants of eviction proceedings against them.
According to Camarena, the City Attorney’s office will attempt to make a determination of whether the case will be represented within 24 hours of receiving the request.
Tenants can apply for the EPP as soon as they receive any eviction notices and are encouraged to do so before receiving a court notice. Once a tenant receives court documents, they have five days to respond before a default judgment is entered against them.
Roberson said tenants should apply to the EPP as soon as possible to give “outside counsel more opportunity to provide comprehensive representation.” Camarena said the screening process should not take more than a few days at most.
Several tenants have already applied and been screened through a soft launch, Roberson said. So far, the process is running smoothly.
Why eviction protection matters
“There’s a power imbalance,” Maxwell said. “And at that crisis point, it’s usually the tenant facing potential homelessness.”
Dozens of renters throughout the city have expressed to The Bee that they are fearful of eviction whether it be for speaking up about unhealthy living conditions or an inability to pay their rent during the pandemic.
And historically, the burden to obtain legal counsel, which can be costly and unachievable for many, falls on tenants, even if their rights are being violated. According to a 2019 Faith in the Valley research report, less than 1% of tenants have legal representation in eviction court, compared to 76% of landlords.
“The Eviction Protection Program promises to be a gamechanger for renters who historically have been left behind when it comes to those rights,” Maxwell said.
Housing insecurity has only been “exacerbated by this pandemic,” Esparza said, crediting the shift in attitudes to the inequities highlighted over the past year and a half.
“Eighteen months ago, I’m not sure a program like this would have gained council support,” Esparza said. “But this pandemic has turned our economy upside down, and in particular, it has turned Fresno’s housing market upside down.”
Across the country, right to counsel programs have proven to be successful in keeping many tenants housed or without formal evictions on their record.
“In other parts of the country there are coordinated efforts by the city, courts, legal aid organizations, (community based organizations), renters and landlords all coordinating together in an effort to prevent evictions,” Alexandra said, referencing Faith in the Valley’s recent trip to the White House to discuss eviction prevention.
Additionally, the program authorizes the city’s City Code Enforcement office to intervene in cases where the landlord is unlawfully evicting tenants for filing a complaint against them.
“In the cases that we’ve seen so far, that is something that is relatively common,” Roberson said. “There is a pretty bright line rule for that. If a tenant is evicted within a certain period of time (after) reporting to code enforcement it can almost be presumed.”
As evidenced from Fresnoland’s investigation of Manchester Arms, code enforcement had not, in the past, questioned whether evictions were retaliatory, even when the landlord had, in several instances, informed the city he was evicting tenants who had open complaints. Several tenants who spoke to reporters and code enforcement officers have received eviction notices, rent raises and other intimidation factors.
Code Enforcement officials said they could not interfere in civil matters when asked why they did not challenge the evictions in March. Camarena said the new EPP “certainly” changes that.
“At that time, we didn’t have this program, so we were dealing with a difficult situation,” Roberson said, adding that the city intends on directing Manchester Arms tenants to the newly established program for help.
How to apply
The initial screening application can be found at fresno.gov/epp. Tenants can do the following to request legal assistance:
- Fill out and submit the form found at the bottom of the page on fresno.gov/epp.
- Call 559-621-8400 to request to be screened for the Eviction Protection Program.
- Print out the PDF, fill it out and mail it into or drop it off at City of Fresno City Attorney’s Office, Attn: EPP, 2600 Fresno Street, Room 3076, Fresno, CA 93721
Any tenant who receives an eviction notice can also call Central California Legal Services for free legal assistance at 800-675-8001.