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From left, Fresno City Councilmembers Nelson Esparza and Tyler Maxwell introduce the Eviction Protection Program. Photo by Edward Smith

published on May 11, 2021 - 2:51 PM
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The Fresno City Council will hear a measure Thursday to provide legal protection for renters facing eviction.

Fresno City Council Vice President Nelson Esparza and Councilmember Tyler Maxwell announced their Eviction Protection Program in a press conference Tuesday.

The program will put out a request for proposal to contract with a private law firm to provide representation for renters facing “unlawful eviction,” according to language in the measure.

The three-page document filed with the city by Esparza and Maxwell said the City Attorney’s would develop a screening process to review each tenant’s case to determine whether the threatened eviction is unlawful. It would also create education programs.

California Apartment Association representative Greg Terzakis said he would not comment on a program so early in its stages, but he did say that the CAA opposes illegal evictions, calling them “immoral and unethical.”

“The question is what is an illegal eviction by state law,” Terzakis said.

Councilmembers Esparza and Maxwell would not venture a guess to the possible cost of the program, but when pressed Esparza said it could start at $500,000. Esparza said money could from the general fund or from the $170 million provided by the American Relief Fund signed by President Joe Biden in March.

GV Wire cited Ivanka Saunders of Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability who said that initial costs would be $1 million with full costs at $5 million a year. The Leadership Council supported a different version of right to counsel.

Attorneys’ tasks would be to define what constitutes an unlawful eviction.

Councilmembers would not go so far as to say what is illegal and said that would be up for the courts to decide.

California’s current eviction moratorium says tenants cannot be evicted for reasons of nonpayment so long as tenants can show hardship from Covid-19.

Attorney Brandi Snow with Central California Legal Services who leads the nonprofit firm’s housing unit said the number of eviction defense cases they have taken on has not decreased from even before the pandemic.

She said a majority of unlawful detainers are filed for lease violations rather than reasons of nonpayment. Some of them are real, said Snow. Some of them follow health and safety concerns or worries about the conditions of the property. At the same time, some are retaliatory.

“They’re situations where the landlord can’t evict someone because of nonpayment of rent — their loss of income is Covid-related — so they look for what other lease violations they can find. It may be something they’ve known about forever but suddenly it’s a problem,” said Snow.

At the same time, property managers have said evicting problem tenants has been more difficult with moratoriums in place.

Esparza said the program would not provide representation for landlords. “We’re not facing a potential wave of homeless landlords,” Esparza said.

Maxwell said the program would combine elements of a previously proposed program by Council President Luis Chavez that would fund eviction-mediation services between landlords and tenants for eviction cases.

Under the program, mediation would be voluntary if both parties agree to it.

Maxwell hopes that the program would be up and running by July 1 — in time for the June 30 end-date of California’s eviction moratorium.

The Fresno City Council still has to approve sending out a request-for-proposal, receive proposals from law firms and then establish a screening process.

Courts have also been notoriously backed up following shutdowns during the pandemic. Maxwell said this might also be an opportunity as tenants can stay in their homes.

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