Councilmen Big on Ideas, Short on Details for Eviction Defense
Two Fresno city councilmen made their pitch Tuesday for providing taxpayer-funded attorneys for residents facing eviction. But, the city legislators did not have answers on how much the plan will cost or what types of evictions will be covered.
Councilmen Nelson Esparza and Tyler Maxwell said at a news conference that they want to avoid a flood of evictions that could happen this summer, when a statewide moratorium ends June 30.
At Thursday’s City Council meeting, they will introduce the Eviction Protection Program with the goal of preventing the increasing homelessness problem.
“Folks in our city deserve housing security. They deserve habitability within those housing units,” Esparza said.
A third councilman Miguel Arias — who discussed amendments to the city’s rental inspection program — added, “We’re trying to get ahead of the eviction tsunami that we all know is coming.”
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No Specifics on How to Fund Program
Esparza and Maxwell emphasized that the resolution is establishing a system to provide legal defense. Details on how much it will cost and how to fund it will come later.
“We’re bringing forward the framework, so that when council decides how much they want to allot, where they want to get that money from, the framework is already in place. So all we have to do — put that money into that program and it’s ready to roll,” Maxwell said.
The EPP would direct the City Attorney to receive bids from outside legal council to defend city residents — regardless of immigration status — from “unlawful” evictions. The program would also include tenants’ rights education and voluntary mediation.
At the news conference, Esparza, Maxwell, and Arias were asked repeatedly by the media how much the program would cost and where the funding would come from.
One option, Esparza said, is funding from the federal American Rescue Plan. The city of Fresno will receive more than $170 million.
“We’re not providing an amount at this point. That’s a decision for the entire council to decide. Whatever amount that ends up being, it’s going to help folks,” Esparza said.
Asked how much he would be willing to spend, Esparza said he wants to start with at least $500,000.
No Definition of ‘Unlawful’
Greg Terzakis, the senior vice president of the California Apartment Association, said his organization opposes illegal evictions.
“It’s both illegal on its very face by its nature and also unethical and immoral. And it hurts the tenants most importantly. But it also hurts the rental housing provider business by having bad actors doing things that are illegal,” Terzakis said.
But, Terzakis is not taking a stance on EPP because the program isn’t fully defined.
“What is the definition of an illegal eviction in any ordinance that will come from this resolution?” Terzakis asked.
The councilmen were vague on how to define “unlawful” evictions that the EPP is supposed to defend.
“We’re not defining what the unlawful versus lawful means, that’ll be up to a judge in a court of law to decide. What we are putting together is a screening application, as well as an interview process to help us hone down on those ones that appear to be a little bit more obvious, a little bit more egregious,” Maxwell said.
Esparza will leave it to the City Attorney’s office to determine what “unlawful” eviction cases for which the city will provide defense services. However, Esparza said that even evictions based on non-payment of rent could qualify as unlawful.
“We have eviction moratoriums at several levels of government right now. And so I would respectfully disagree with the characterization of nonpayment as being legal (reason for eviction), given all the different emergency orders and different laws and regulations that are currently in place and I think are likely to be extended,” Esparza said.
Esparza also explained that it is in the city’s interest to cover rent defense as opposed to other financial problems Fresno residents may have — such as parking tickets or an automobile repossession.
“Housing insecurity is a threat to our city,” Esparza said.
The new proposal also got mixed reviews from one prominent advocacy group.
“This program will aid some tenants in receiving education, assistance with legal questions, and direct representation when facing an eviction. However, this resolution needs to be more inclusive and supportive of those served with an unlawful detainer,” said Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado, spokesman for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
LCJA wants representation for all who receive an eviction court case, as well as a legal hotline, and a three-year funding model from federal stimulus funds.
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Rental Relief Awarded Slowly
Arias said it is more cost-effective to prevent homelessness than it is to rehouse those living in the streets.
“It’s costing the city taxpayers $3 to $5 million to house about 80 homeless folks at a motel,” Arias said. “There is going to be an investment. But that’s why the federal government gave us a record amount of relief funds to provide local relief.”
The city has received $35 million from the federal government to provide rental and utility relief. Arias said the city received 4,000 applications and only $1 million has been awarded.
Regulations call for awarding two-thirds of the money by June 15.
“Nobody across the state is going to meet that deadline because the amount of documentation required,” Arias said.
They will discuss asking for an extension at Thursday’s council meeting.
Arias also discussed amendments he is proposing to the city’s rental housing inspection program. Among the changes sought to the 2018 program: reducing the time to allow for landlords to correct problems from 90 to 45 days; adding inspections of long-stay hotels/motels; and changing fines