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Ashley Emerzian (left) and Inna Shankar were both named in the 40 Under 40 Class of 2018 for Fresno. Photo contributed.

published on July 29, 2021 - 11:52 AM
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The City of Fresno has set aside $750,000 to pay legal fees for tenants facing unlawful evictions. And now, the Fresno City Attorney’s office has selected the firm.

The three attorneys at Fresno-based Emerzian Shankar Legal Inc. will champion the cause of renters at a time the industry was disrupted by Covid and mandated shutdowns.

The program went live Tuesday, and already the city has taken on at least six cases. Tenants can apply to the Eviction Protection Program through the following avenues: online at www.fresno.gov/epp, by phone at 559-621-8400, or in person at City Hall, 3rd floor in Room 3065.

Shareholders Ashley Emerzian and Inna Shankar founded the firm in 2018. The same year, Emerzian and Shankar were recognized as outstanding business professionals under 40 years old.

The labor and employer attorneys’ bid was one of six received by the city. Using Shankar’s “significant” experience in landlord-tenant law, Shankar will take the lead in the City’s Unlawful Eviction Protection Program, Emerzian said.

The unlawful detainer process is legalistic with short timelines, Emerzian said, making it very challenging for tenants to represent themselves. Nonprofit Faith in the Valley analyzed unlawful detainer cases in the City and County of Fresno. The 2019 publication “Evicted in Fresno” cited data from 2016 finding 62% of eviction filings resulted in a default judgment against tenants. Largely, this means that tenants didn’t respond in the five-day window. Faith in the Valley surmised reasons could include legalistic language people don’t understand, lack of translation or information about processes and lack of affordable legal representation.

Tenants would be eligible for representation if they are facing a potentially unlawful eviction, said Rodney Horton, housing & neighborhood revitalization manager for the Fresno City Attorney’s Office. Tenants would be evaluated on a case-by-base basis. Some potential causes for eviction would include retaliation for code enforcement violations or failure to pay rent due to Covid-19 income loss, among others.

Contract amounts for the Program will be on an hourly rate. The City Attorney’s office estimates that each case should require about 10 hours of work. An estimate given to councilmembers was that $600,000 would get the City “pretty far,” according to Fresno City Council Vice President Nelson Esparza, who, along with Councilmember Tyler Maxwell, presented the framework for the Program. The $600,000 estimation leaves $150,000 of “wiggle room” for the program.

Esparza said he did not consider representation for tenants a function of government until the pandemic. But with an overheated housing market and millions of jobs upended, Esparza said the Program was implemented to avoid a rush of evictions once eviction moratoriums are lifted Oct. 1.

Esparza said the Program would have an inherent sunset based on available funding, though money is available from unused Emergency Rental Assistance Program or American Rescue Plan dollars.

It’s difficult to put a number on the number of possible of evictions or the need for representation. Determining how many are due to the pandemic is even harder. Faith in the Valley found 3,694 unlawful detainer cases in 2016. Not every unlawful detainer case results in an eviction and not every eviction goes through the courts, the report recognized. Lead housing attorney Brandi Snow with Central California Legal Services (CCLS) estimates that they represent only about 2-5% of evictions. They handle about 300 cases at any time.

Snow anticipates the number of evictions to be “enormous” once protections end.

“CCLS is receiving as many cases as we can handle and working to extend our bandwidth, but we know we only see 5% or fewer of the eviction and illegal lockout cases that are occurring in the Fresno area,” Snow said.

Eligibility for the program will depend on a screening process developed by the City Attorney’s office. Multiple requests for comment from the City Attorney’s office were not returned. The report from Faith in the Valley found that of the 1,000 cases they examined, 1% of tenants had legal representation versus 73% of landlords. Emerzian anticipates many of the cases would be settled through negotiation without the need for litigation.

Landlords have been settling out of court for some time. One property owner in Fresno said the 18 tenants he has have, for the most part, fared relatively well during the pandemic. He did have one tenant he had to negotiate with to leave. The property owner did not to disclose his name because of threats the tenant made to him. He said while they paid their rent, they weren’t taking care of the property. While he wasn’t able to evict them, he did agree to give them their entire security deposit back so they could use it to move.

Robin Kane, senior vice president with the Mogharebi Group, says a tenant with representation is actually a plus. The Mogharebi Group specializes in multi-family real estate. What landlords are wary of is if the program stays long-term and they end up paying for it through inspection fees.

While most tenants are getting their rents in, problem tenants often disappear.

The more unpaid rent accumulates, and there isn’t an easy solution, it’s human nature to begin ignoring it, said Kane.

In order to collect government money that subsidizes back rent, both the renter and the landlord need to cooperate. Having an attorney might unhinge the hesitancy a tenant might have, said Kane.

Landlords, however, worry that with the Unlawful Eviction Protection Program, the door has been opened to put the cost of funding the program onto landlords.

Esparza said sheltering homeless populations is one the most expensive endeavors a government can undertake. And that tenant representation may help avert a wave of evictions after moratoriums are lifted.

“To take less than a million dollars and potentially prevent that wave of evictions that could be on the horizon I think is a pretty cost-effective way of mitigating that growth,” said Esparza.

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