Central California Legal Services in Fresno has been on the front lines in assisting tenants facing eviction. The organization is one of the few doing such work. File photo
Written by Gabriel Dillard
With the lifting of Fresno’s Covid emergency order last week, so also goes the ban on evictions — soon. And one thing tenant and landlord representatives can agree on is a sudden rise in evictions.
The end of the emergency order gives tenants until Feb. 1, 2023, to pay past-due rent, protecting them from eviction. Tenants must notify their landlord they are unable to pay because of Covid and provide documentation supporting that claim within ten days of the notification.
There are no protections for unpaid rent after June 10.
Robert Cortez, supervising attorney for the housing team with Central California Legal Services, predicts that much like in Tulare and Merced counties, Fresno courts will see a marked increase in unlawful detainer filings. An unlawful detainer is the legal term for eviction proceedings.
Tulare and Merced County officials lifted the eviction moratorium along with the state on March 31. Requests for numbers of unlawful detainers filed in their respective courts were not fulfilled by press time.
What Cortez largely saw in those counties were landlords pursuing rent for April and May 2022 only.
“The reason for that is it’s a lot more difficult for a landlord to successfully prevail an unlawful detainer that seeks rent for the Covid period,” Cortez said.
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Rent due after the end of the eviction moratorium doesn’t carry the same protections as it did during Covid.
Cortez suspects one major reason for this is that once an apartment is vacated, the landlord or property manager can raise rent to market levels rather than being limited by AB 1482, which limits annual rent increases to 10% while occupied.
“The main goal is not really to make money from that tenant. The main goal is to get that tenant out so they can rent at a higher price,” said Cortez.
Landlords are looking at every opportunity to terminate that lease, he added.
Violations such as smoking on the property — now banned in the City of Fresno — parking on the front lawn or other things that may not have been enforced earlier are now being taken seriously, said Cortez.
Beyond rental increases, getting a tenant out of a building also makes it easier to sell, increasing the pool of potential buyers.
Landlords don’t typically want to evict unless they have no other option, said Steven Hrdlicka, a Fresno attorney who represents property owners.
Evictions are long and costly — and rarely bring in money owed.
Most landlords are content to keep the same tenant even if it means rent lower than market rate. Established tenants are just more reliable, he said.
“You don’t want to upset the apple cart, you want to keep everything as it was,” Hrdlicka said.
He said Covid has been terrible for a lot of landlords, particularly owners of single-family homes.
Apartment owners can typically screen applicants more efficiently than owners of one or two rental homes. And in the case of multi-family properties, rent-paying tenants can carry some of the weight for those not paying rent.
A homeowner with a tenant not paying rent is losing out on 100% of income, Hrdlicka said.
Many property owners were unable to ride out the storm and some were forced to sell properties they bought using their savings.
Dozens of Hrdlicka’s clients had tenants who owed rent going back as far as six months, with many going back as far as 10 months.
Many landlords have their own mortgages to pay and without any income, they fall behind as well.
He had multiple clients who had to sell occupied properties in the middle of Covid with tenants not paying rent. Buyers took advantage of the situation and paid far less than market value for those homes, he said.
Hrdlicka said lifting the eviction moratorium means leveling the playing field. The message from elected officials was clear, he said: They didn’t need to pay rent.
“In the past, if a tenant failed to pay rent, obviously that was a good reason to evict,” said Hrdlicka. “The landlords have largely been unable to evict tenants who have failed to pay rent.”
Help still available?
Cortez said getting rental assistance has been spotty. In cities that used programs run by the state, it was much more difficult getting information about why an application was denied. Cortez did praise the programs run by the County of Fresno and the City of Fresno.
He was able to contact officials and find out if a question had been filled out incorrectly or income verification was not complete.
“Something clerical like that could be easily fixed with the City program,” Cortez said.
Both the City of Fresno and County of Fresno still have money available in their rental assistance programs, meaning tenants can still apply. Other jurisdictions in the Valley, including Tulare, Madera and Kings counties, used state money, which has been exhausted.
Both Hrdlicka and Cortez anticipate a rise in evictions. In Fresno, Cortez said there are still evictions for not paying rent, but there are three times as many for other reasons. Cortez suspects that will balance out before long.
For the most part in Fresno, the only tenant representatives available are those contracted with the City — Emerzian Shankar Legal Inc. and Pahoua Lor with the Law Office of Pahoua Lor — and Central California Legal Services.
If there is a sudden rise in evictions, Cortez fears his Housing Team’s other functions will suffer due to limited staffing. That means tenants whose rents are increasing at levels beyond those allowed by AB 1482 will have trouble finding representation.
Cortez suspects landlords are just out to make more money.
“If the goal for the landlord was to recoup money that they lost because of nonpayment of rent, I would be able to stomach that a little better because obviously the landlords are in business to make a profit. They’re not in business to lose money. But that’s not the ultimate goal here,” said Cortez.
Hrdlicka said for landlords have been unfairly villainized during Covid. Tenants behind on rent had 18 months of assistance to get their finances in order, he said.
“Everybody understands the person that owned or worked at a restaurant or was a barber or any one of a number of different occupations,” Hrdlicka said. “I think the landlords would have always worked with those folks.”
“It was completely shutting down the system and telling tenants they didn’t have to pay rent, he added. “Candidly I don’t think that should have ever happened.”