Coalition statement on Fresno City Council President’s flawed response to housing crisis

People directly impacted by the housing crisis and a legacy of housing injustice are the experts who can lead us toward a model of housing where everyone has a safe, accessible and permanently affordable place to call home.

Statement on behalf of the Fresno Right To Counsel Coalition

April 5, 2021 — It is deeply concerning that Council President Luis Chavez, apparently, did not include the community in the development of the City’s Rental Mediation Program, a program that is deeply flawed and falls far too short of actually addressing Fresno’s eviction crisis. 

Since summer 2019, our university-community coalition has studied the problems of and solutions to the eviction crisis. We produced three ground-breaking eviction reports for the Central Valley, spent months observing hearings and trials in housing court, and connected with stakeholders in our community and from around the nation. Our intention was to fully understand the problem and find the most effective way for Fresno and other Central Valley jurisdictions to prevent even greater numbers of homelessness. One absolutely critical step to ending homelesness is an Eviction Diversion and Homelessness Prevention Program like Right to Counsel, which research has shown is only effective if it is comprehensive and fully implemented. Partial and minimal efforts will not make a difference. Right to Counsel is a holistic approach to making our housing and court systems fair.

We should ask: 

  • What was Council President Chavez’s process? Did he spend a year and half studying Fresno’s eviction crisis? We did. 
  • Did he engage in a meaningful process to ensure community voices were central to his plan? We did. 
  • Did he meet with stakeholders from New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Los Angeles, and San Francisco? We did.
  • Did he examine the costs and benefits to Fresnans city-wide for a full-scale comprehensive program? We did.
  • Did he develop a plan that would address longstanding racism and discrimination in our housing and court system? We did.
  • Did he use a racial equity framework to address the civil rights violations in our housing and legal systems? We did.

Our current housing system is set up to protect landlords’ investments and profits over the rights and safety of renting families. This power imbalance allows unscrupulous landlords to violate people’s rights. We all have a right to live in safe and healthy homes. We have a right to live without fear of retaliation from our landlords if we seek repairs for structural problems. We have a right to live without unfair rent hikes, above what is legally allowable under AB 1482 and, during the California state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, California Penal Code Section 396. We have a right to have our side of the story heard in housing court. When we have these rights, why are they not upheld? Whether it is unsafe living conditions, illegal rent increases, illegal evictions, or retaliation — wrong is wrong and right is right. 

Renters who are served with a notice by their landlord need help navigating the fast-moving court system and making sense of the complex set of housing laws. Housing laws were put in place to protect renters and landlords, but a renter is not protected by these laws if they cannot afford an attorney. While over 50% of Fresno households are renters, renters’ rights are not being upheld, as evidenced by the recent journalistic investigation of the Manchester Arms apartments where tenants were living in slum conditions and being evicted over suspected retaliation for speaking out. Thousands of families are evicted in Fresno every year, even before the pandemic. How many of those evictions happened without people having their side of the story heard in court, or because landlords have an unfair advantage in the legal process? This goes against our fundamental values as a nation and as a community. We all believe in fairness and justice, especially when it comes to our laws and courts. Right to Counsel will help make the housing system and the court system fair for everyone. 

This is also a civil rights issue. There are huge disparities in legal representation in Fresno’s housing court. Our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno revealed that less than 1% of renters have legal representation compared to 73% of landlords and a recent study by the Eviction Lab revealed racial and gender disparities in evictions. Our housing system and legal system were built to advance and maintain white supremacy for wealth accumulation. Black people, Indigenous Peoples, Latinx, Southeast Asians, people who are undocumented, women and children, people with disabilities, and economically vulnerable seniors are all disproportionately impacted by unfair housing and legal practices (i.e., denied due process in housing court and subjected to slum housing, retaliation, illegal rent increases, illegal evictions, etc.). These systems were designed this way. It’s our moral and ethical responsibility to redesign them through a racial equity framework– one where every person no matter their income, background or conformity to social norms is treated fairly in their housing and by the courts. The responsibility to transform unfair systems is especially required of the people who were elected to make budget decisions and pass policies to protect Fresno residents and help our city thrive.

Our coalition developed a research-driven, comprehensive, community-led eviction diversion and homelessness prevention proposal that includes city-wide outreach, much-needed public education, legal services, (including mediation to help renters and landlords find a fair resolution), legal representation as a last resort if needed, and connections to other vital city services (Code Enforcement, Anti-Slum Enforcement Team, etc.). Our proposal comes from residents who are directly impacted by centuries-long injustices in our housing and legal systems. People directly impacted by the housing crisis and a legacy of housing injustice are the experts who can lead us toward a model of housing where everyone has a safe, accessible and permanently affordable place to call home. 

We studied the problem.

We found the solution.

We wrote the proposal.

We found the money.

Will Fresno leaders listen?

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

For questions, contact Alexandra Alvarado at alexandra@faithinthevalley.org or Ivanka Saunders at isaunders@leadershipcounsel.org.

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