Valley Voices

Evicted in Fresno: A complex story of economic burden—and profit

See Vang, 32, packed up her family’s belongings in 2016 while moving out of the apartment she shared with her husband and nine children for two years in southeast Fresno. Vang lived in an apartment complex featured in The Bee’s substandard housing investigation, “Living in Misery.” She was given a 60-day notice to move out. She said the landlord retaliated against her for talking to Bee reporters and calling code enforcement about shoddy conditions.
See Vang, 32, packed up her family’s belongings in 2016 while moving out of the apartment she shared with her husband and nine children for two years in southeast Fresno. Vang lived in an apartment complex featured in The Bee’s substandard housing investigation, “Living in Misery.” She was given a 60-day notice to move out. She said the landlord retaliated against her for talking to Bee reporters and calling code enforcement about shoddy conditions. Fresno Bee file

Every year in Fresno County court orders evict thousands of households — 3,000 plus — from their homes. Thousands more of informal evictions happen outside of the courtroom.

Evictions disrupt and devastate. Families lose their homes and possessions. They lose the safety and comfort of their neighborhoods. Children lose bonds with teachers and friends; their attendance, ability to focus, and academic performance suffer.

Perhaps most alarming is the correlation that Matthew Desmond, Princeton sociologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” found between evictions and suicide among single mothers.

But communities pay the price for evictions, too — in lost productivity, lower educational attainment, reduced employment and increased health care costs.

Our findings on Fresno County evictions tell a complex story of economic burden — and profit. On average, with court fees and costs, an eviction quadruples what the tenant originally owed on rent. Meanwhile, court records since 2007 show that Fresno judges are awarding the top lawyer representing landlords about $1 million annually on eviction cases — money to be paid by tenants.

And these cases are easy to win — almost two-thirds of them resolve with a default judgment for the landlord because the tenant does not appear in court. When tenants do appear, only 1% of them have legal representation, while 73% of landlords have lawyers.

Why are renters forced to move in the first place?

Compared to neighborhoods with low poverty, eviction rates are twice as high in neighborhoods where there is severe poverty, and families, on average, pay over half their income for rent. Unsurprisingly, many cannot sustain that rent burden and fall behind.

But it’s rare to fall far behind. Landlords tell a story of “deadbeat tenants” who live for months on the landlord’s dime, while the landlord goes bankrupt. In fact, 40% of tenants are one month behind, or less, when they get an eviction notice, another 42% are one month plus late fees, and most of them are out of their homes within 32 days. Our data shows a range of as little as six days to a maximum of 77 days before a tenant is forced out.

And failure to pay is not the only reason renters are evicted. Among the 1,000 unlawful detainer cases we examined, 11% were nonrent related. Evictions happen for many reasons.

We learned about Barbara, 73, and Steve, 75 (not their real names). They were served an eviction from their senior-living community for “unauthorized occupants.” But if someone you loved needed a place to stay, would you turn them away? Or would you risk violating your lease to shelter them? Their case is not unique.

But what about people who fail to pay rent? Don’t they deserve to be evicted?

If you’re a homeowner and an unexpected life event forces you to pay an urgent bill instead of your mortgage, there are multiple safety nets — private bank and government-funded — that can catch you before you lose your home. Not so for renters.

As Desmond said, “We have the money. We’ve just made choices about how to spend it. Over the years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have restricted housing aid to the poor but expanded it to the affluent…”

What should we do to prevent evictions? Can we create protections that benefit renters, and landlords too? Yes. Two suggestions:

▪  A fully-funded emergency rent and relocation program would bring immediate relief to landlords and renters — making sure landlords are made whole, while tenants can move in an orderly way. It’s a partnership between the city, tenants, and landlords — money goes directly to landlords when renter’s fall short. Grants help economically vulnerable households with civil matters, like eviction. Grants help tenants get a payment extension or relocate to a new home. Unlike loans, grants do not need to be paid back, this can substantially ease the compounded burden associated with evictions.

An emergency rent fund won’t fix the much-deeper issues of growing income and wealth inequality and the affordable housing crisis, but it will provide much-needed relief to families and landlords right now.

▪  Provide tenants access to legal representation. Desmond cites a 2017 report on California’s Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act: “With representation, tenants were able to successfully settle cases almost twice as often as those without (67 percent compared to 34 percent).” These fairer settlements benefit landlords by putting more money in their pockets more quickly, while tenants avoid an eviction on their record.

More than half of Fresno’s families are renters. We all benefit when they are secure in their homes. Just these two steps, coupled with tenant protections starting on Jan. 1st as a result of recently-signed state bill AB 1482 — which will require “just cause” for evictions and place a cap on egregious rent increases — would go a long way toward providing that security.

With Matthew Desmond scheduled to visit Fresno later this week and the ongoing reality that is reflected in the numbers of our report, what better time than now for our elected and philanthropic leaders to act?

Principal authors of this op-ed are Janine Nkosi, regional adviser, Faith in the Valley, and lecturer of Sociology, Fresno State, and Amber Crowell, assistant professor of sociology at Fresno State. Contributing authors are Karla Arana, lead housing organizer with Faith in the Valley, Fresno; Patience Milrod, executive director, Central California Legal Services; and Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, supervising attorney, Housing Team, Central California Legal Services.

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