Last summer, a Fresno family repeatedly asked their landlord to repair a faulty electrical system in their home. The landlord ignored their pleas, the power went out and the family went without electricity for almost a month. The landlord then tried to evict them, and they came to Central California Legal Services for legal assistance. We helped this family win their case and stay in their home, which the landlord was ordered to repair. The landlord later attempted another unlawful eviction, and CCLS again assisted the family. We ultimately obtained $7,000 in relocation funds and time for the family to find a new home, where they will not have to fight for basic services like reliable access to electricity.
Most tenants facing this type of situation (or this type of landlord) are not so lucky because almost no tenant is lucky enough to have a lawyer on their side. CCLS provides free civil legal assistance to low-income residents of six counties in the Valley, and we defend more eviction cases annually than any other type of case. Many tenants come to CCLS completely unaware of basic legal protections, including the right to withhold rent when a landlord illegally fails to repair holes in the roof or ensure there’s hot water. Each year, we help thousands of families through this stressful process, providing critical legal information and representation in court.
Eviction cases inundate our Valley court systems. Landlords usually have lawyers in these cases, while tenants almost never do. Not surprisingly, eviction outcomes tend to favor those with lawyers. Landlords want speedy evictions, but tenants need a fair chance to present legitimate defenses. Here in the Valley, poor families are sleeping in their cars because they have lost the opportunity to make their case in court.
CCLS’s high volume of eviction cases is a symptom of a much deeper issue in our community. An April 2018 California Housing Partnership report found that 75 percent of the poorest renters in Fresno County spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent. The same report found that Fresno County lacks 41,000 affordable rental homes. The Valley simply does not have enough housing for low-income families. Many Valley residents live paycheck-to-paycheck, paying high rents on low-quality housing because there are too few affordable units. California’s statewide housing crunch means that middle- and working-class families from the coast who can no longer afford the rents in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles move here in search of an affordable place to live, making our local market even tighter.
This perfect storm encourages some landlords to do little or nothing to keep up their properties, because there will always be another low-income tenant desperate to get a roof over their head. Such landlords violate tenant rights and then abuse the eviction process because, at the end of the day, it’s a seller’s market. For these landlords, doing business means filing evictions whether or not they have a legal basis for kicking the tenants out. The abuses by such landlords would go virtually unchecked without CCLS’s advocacy.
Our housing team works to bring balance to the eviction process, but we know that for every tenant we can represent, dozens of other tenants must experience this frightening process alone. CCLS invites local attorneys to consider volunteering pro bono in 2019 to assist Valley renters to obtain justice in eviction cases. We provide training, professional liability insurance, and a chance to keep families safe and stable in their homes. Legal representation for tenants in eviction proceedings promotes housing stability and prevents homelessness in the Valley — two goals our entire community can agree on.
Emilia P. E. Morris is legal director of Central California Legal Services. Marcos Segura is a housing team attorney. Advice line: (800) 675-8001