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By giving tenants a legal right to counsel, Fresno can lower the number of people experiencing homelessness

FRESNO — It’s a new dawn in the City of Fresno. The city council inaugurated a new mayor and one councilmember to begin the 2021 session.

But even with a new year and mayor, some things have not changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to challenge the Fresno-area with an ICU capacity shortage. And, as the economic effects of the pandemic continue to set in, housing security continues to be a priority issue for residents. 

With the new year come new leases and rent increases. All while evictions may resume as soon as February as state and federal restrictions begin to lift. Residents who are backed up in payments and out of work will be impacted the most. Housing was an issue before the pandemic, but what the health emergency has revealed is that when there are disruptions in daily life, there must be protections in place so residents are not left to face a crisis they did not create. 

Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Faith in the Valley, students from Fresno State and residents embarked on a campaign seeking to establish protection for renters that would respond to the lack of legal representation for renters in the City of Fresno when it comes to housing.

Fresno-RTC-Coalition-Proposal-Jan.-2021

A “Right to Counsel” proposal was drafted in December 2020 and outlines in detail why renters in Fresno, a city with a more-than-half renting population, would benefit greatly from implementing legal support for renters who face sudden eviction, on top of habitability issues, illegal rent increases, and other countless problems.

Based on research by Faith in the Valley, more than 28,000 renters are vulnerable to eviction because of hardship caused by COVID-19. Other studies also point to the disproportionate impact that eviction has on Black and Latinx renters, particularly women.

“Civil Right to Counsel ensures that every eligible tenant has an attorney when their housing is at stake. If the City of Fresno establishes a comprehensive Right to Counsel program, then thousands of households will have a better chance of stabilizing their homes during the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the report prepared by the organizations and shared with the city.    

What is eviction 

Eviction is a process in which a landlord can request a judge to force tenants out of their homes for reasons such as unpaid rent. A notice of eviction thrusts families into a complex court process that leaves them helpless if they do not understand the rules and technicalities around fighting an eviction. This only adds to the trauma and burden already faced by families in financial hardship. 

As families barely scrape by, landlords can afford to hire legal representation in what is an unfair process in a courtroom which only exacerbates a tenant’s financial liability when the attorney collects additional fees and surcharges from tenants. 

The “Right to Counsel” report outlines that “Less than 1% of Fresno tenants have an attorney in eviction court, compared to 76% of landlords.” 

[Read Faith in the Valley’s report – Evicted in Fresno: Facts for Housing Advocates]

The consequences of an eviction are life-changing because the record of an eviction stays on a person’s rental history for seven years, preventing them from finding stable housing. It can also leave them in crushing debt. What starts as a mere few hundred dollars of missed payment turns into thousands of dollars owed to the landlord and attorney.

Leveling the playing field

For that reason, LCJA, FIV, and its partner advocates are pushing to level the playing field for residents by urging the city of Fresno to implement a “Right to Counsel” policy that would ensure low-income renters across the city have access to attorneys who can guide them through a court process. Not only that, but ensuring that there is adequate and fair representation for renters also ensures the city avoids the repercussions of eviction which translate to costs for taxpayers — the greatest of which is homelessness. 

The city of Fresno can lower the number of people experiencing homelessness with this policy alone. The 2020 Point-In-Time count found that there are at least 3,641 Fresno county community members without shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a 45% increase of unsheltered individuals since 2019.

“Residents of our city are suffering from illness, and job loss.  And then, they are hit with an eviction notice.  Where do they turn to for help?

Ivanka Saunders, policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel

“Residents of our city are suffering from illness, and job loss.  And then, they are hit with an eviction notice.  Where do they turn to for help?  They don’t have the resources to go hire an attorney like the landlord does,” Ivanka Saunders, policy coordinator with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability said. 

Saunders, as part of the local coalition supporting the policy, has presented the “Right to Counsel” proposal to the Fresno City Council. On Thursday, Jan. 7, the city underwent a workshop to discuss the “Right to Counsel” policy. The workshop was sponsored by Councilman Nelson Esparza.  

The proposal laid out by LCJA and Faith in the Valley is rooted in research and in true community input. And similar policies in other, larger cities signal that providing legal aid to residents is beneficial to communities. Addressing the lack of legal aid to renters is also about racial equity. Althought the eviction crisis spans the entire city of Fresno, neighborhoods comprising low-income and families of color are disproportionately affected, data in the “Right to Counsel” proposal shows. 

[ABC-30: Multi-million dollar legal tenant protection plan could reduce Fresno homelessness, save taxpayers millions]

[Tenants rights group proposing solution to homelessness in Fresno]

“Years of accumulated data have proved that counsel is highly effective in preserving housing stability,” according to John Pollock, a coordinator with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, who expressed his support for LCJA and Faith in the Valley’s proposal for Right to Counsel in Fresno. He added, “The right to counsel has caused 86 percent of New York City tenants and 66 percent of San Francisco tenants to remain in their homes. And prior reports by Stout Risius Ross have consistently found that more than 90 percent of tenants avoid displacement when represented by counsel.” 

Updated Jan. 31, 2021. For questions or press inquiries, please contact Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado at crdelgado@leadershipcounsel.org


Here are some frequently-asked questions about “Right to Counsel”:

What is the consequence of eviction? 

When an eviction occurs, families may be thrust out onto the streets, live in their cars, couch surf from friend to friend or family member to family member, or find temporary shelter in a motel. Those who do live on the street are subject to arrest and incarceration, as well as to significantly increased health risks that not infrequently lead to hospital visits.  Families may lose their personal belongings, their social ties to the community are abruptly severed, and children are uprooted from their schools, friends, and teachers. Children may miss days in school or completely lose focus causing them to fall drastically behind. Having an unstable housing situation may cause parents to lose their children to the foster care system. The physical, emotional, and mental toll of evictions actually leads to increased rates of suicide for mothers with small children. Evictions also lead to job loss. When families lose the stability of their home, every aspect of their lives is disrupted.

Evictions carry a 7-year adverse rental record, and, if money is owed, a 10-year adverse credit record. An adverse record, coupled with the huge shortfall in affordable housing units and the continual increase in the cost of living, often forces families to rent subpar housing.

How many evictions happen in Fresno County?

Over the ten-year period 2007-2016, there were 39,418 Unlawful Detainer lawsuits filed in Fresno County. During the 2008 Great Recession, UD filings increased dramatically from 2929 in 2007 to 4263 in 2010, peaking at 4383 in 2011. An analysis of monthly trend data shows that the aftershocks of spikes in unemployment last for months, with spikes in UD filings occurring roughly 6 months after spikes in unemployment. Even after the post-recession recovery in 2019, when Fresno County experienced its lowest unemployment rate since before the recession, there were still over 3,000 UD filings. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ripple effect will be long-lasting, especially for the most vulnerable residents. In 2019, our judicial administrative records request to the Superior Court of California, Fresno County shows 3,230 residential unlawful detainer filings. However, this vastly understates the scope of the problem: up until now, some evictions have been halted by federal/state moratoria, and there was previously financial relief for tenants in the form of federal stimulus checks and expanded unemployment.  The financial relief has been severely cut back or dried up entirely.  

How does Right to Counsel work?

The Right to Counsel will be implemented through education and outreach, eviction prevention interventions, legal representation for eligible tenants in eviction proceedings, rental assistance, ongoing support for tenants, and evaluation.

Several jurisdictions, including New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have created comprehensive reports and toolkits to support other jurisdictions so that they may learn from their process and develop a Right to Counsel. The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel provides an abundance of research and resources for civic and community leaders. John Pollock, Coordinator of NCCRC is available to provide technical assistance to jurisdictions ready to explore a Civil Right to Counsel.

Findings consistently reveal that when tenants are able to navigate the complex and robust legal process with legal representation, they participate more effectively in the legal process, there is a reduction in the number of default judgments, and both parties are much more likely to enter into a settlement agreement.

How much would it cost to develop a Right to Counsel law in Fresno County?

According to the “Right to Counsel” proposal, a recent study conducted on San Francisco’s RTC program noted “there is strong evidence that increasing access to legal aid is one of the most successful and cost-effective interventions to reducing homelessness.” Cost-benefit analyses conducted by Stout for New York ($320 million), Los Angeles ($370 million for the county and city combined), Philadelphia ($45.2 million), and Baltimore ($17.5 million) reveal significant yearly returns on investment.We are working with legal and policy experts to establish an appropriate estimate for what it would cost to establish a fully-funded Right to Counsel in Fresno County. A preliminary estimate, based on methodology outlined by Stout Risius Ross, LLC (“Stout”) and information from other jurisdictions that already established a Right to Counsel bill, the Board of Supervisors and City of Fresno are encouraged to each set aside $5 million is federal CARES funding as a starting point. 

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