Fresno tenants put up with a lot-abusive landlords, poor living conditions, retaliation threats, arbitrary evictions and unaffordable rents. Bad landlords operate with impunity, and tenants are afraid to assert their rights.
Last year, Rev. Sharon Stanley of the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) showed reporters a bag full of roaches collected from one apartment in an infested apartment complex on Lowe Avenue in southeast Fresno. The media campaign exposed the problem, bringing much-needed public attention to the plight of tenants, and pressured the landlord to take steps to address the substandard housing conditions. However, the landlord who forced families to endure deplorable living conditions has yet to be held accountable for his callous business practices.
Because of its high proportion of renters, Fresno should be the renters’ rights capital of the Central Valley. There are more tenants in Fresno than homeowners and far more tenants than landlords. An estimated 52% of Fresno residents are renters. The proportion of renters in Fresno is 10 percentage points higher than the California average and 20 percentage points higher than the national average. In cities with large concentrations of tenants, strong tenant protections are crucial to maintaining the health and stability of the entire community.
Yet Fresno tenants lack basic protections that tenants in many other California cities have. For example, Fresno does not even have a law against arbitrary evictions. This has enabled banks acquiring tenant-occupied property at foreclosure to evict innocent tenants for no good reason. Last year alone, more than 4,500 tenants were displaced because their landlords were foreclosed on. Such evictions are banned in 16 California cities with “just cause for eviction” laws, but not in Fresno. The City Council could help stabilize the community by passing a law to stop foreclosure evictions without costing the city a penny.
Frederick Douglass famously stated that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” In Fresno, despite the large number of tenants living in the city, there is no citywide renters’ group to harness their power and make demands to protect and expand the rights of tenants. Fortunately, efforts are under way to build a citywide coalition to strengthen tenant rights in Fresno. Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters’ rights, has been working with tenant advocates and other local allies to organize tenants in the community. The coalition is on the verge of unveiling a campaign targeting a notorious slumlord in the city.
Tenants Together is also helping to form a local Tenant Action Group (TAG), consisting of tenants in Fresno who are committed to taking action for tenant rights in their community. Fresno tenants who want to join the Fresno TAG should call our toll- free number at 1-888-495-8020 or e-mail email@example.com. A key to tenant organizing is to start small and think big. Declaring a single complex or neighborhood as a zone where tenant rights will be respected can have a major ripple effect. Again and again, across the state of California, we have seen situations where a small group of motivated tenants have made a big difference.
Those who say tenant organizing in Fresno is impossible should take a quick look at the recent accomplishment of TenantsTogether members in the city of Ridgecrest, a community far more conservative and reluctant to embrace tenant rights than Fresno. In response to threatened evictions at the hands of banks after foreclosure, Ridgecrest tenants successfully waged a three-month campaign to pass a just cause for eviction law. This was the first tenantprotection law ever passed in Kern County. These tenants wouldn’t take no for an answer. They organized, made demands, mobilized and won, gaining protections for themselves and their entire community. Fresno tenants deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. Landlords who can’t follow the rules must be held accountable. Where the existing rules allow for unjust treatment of tenants, the rules need to be changed. Tenants Together looks forward to working with Fresno tenants and allies to protect and expand the renters’ rights in the city.
Dean Preston is the executive director of Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters’ rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.tenantstogether.org.
FAQs for Fresno Tenants
Q: My landlord refuses to make repairs. What can I do?
A: Start by demanding repairs in writing from the property manager. If the landlord does not fix the problem, contact the city’s Code Enforcement Division at 559-621-8400. An inspector should arrange for an inspection, after which the city should send a notice of violations to the landlord with a deadline for repairs to be completed. Landlords who do not comply with the city’s notice are asking for trouble. Not only can the city fine these landlords, but tenants can sue for breach of the warranty of habitability. There is also a state law, Civil Code 1942.4, which makes it illegal for the landlord to continue collecting rent where certain conditions remain unabated for more than 35 days after the landlord is cited by a city inspector.
Q: My landlord shows up and demands access to my home. What are my rights?
A: The landlord can only enter your home under certain circumstances. A landlord can enter to deal with an emergency (e.g., if a pipe bursts). The landlord can also enter, after providing 24 hours written notice, to make repairs or show the apartment. See Civil Code Section 1954 for more details. If your landlord insists on entering over your objection in violation of these rules, you can call the police.
Q: I’m a month-to-month tenant. My landlord is evicting me for no reason at all. Can he do this?
A: Probably. Most Fresno tenants are subject to eviction for no reason at all. The city can change this by passing a “just cause for eviction” law, but until that happens, most landlords are free to evict without cause. The rules are different for Section 8 and other subsidized tenancies.
Q: My landlord verbally ordered me to move out of my place. Do I need to move?
A: No. Verbal eviction notice is invalid in California. Until you receive a written notice to terminate your tenancy that complies with California law, you do not need to move in response to the landlord’s verbal demands.
Q: The landlord is raising my rent. Can she do this?
A: Not if you are within the term of a fixed-term rental agreement. In other words, if you are six months into a one-year agreement that specifies a $700 rent, the landlord cannot raise the rent until the agreement expires. But if you are a month-to-month tenant, the landlord can raise your rent any amount, as long as the increase is not in retaliation for your exercise of your rights as a tenant. The landlord must provide 30 days’ written notice of the rent increase, or 60 days’ notice if the rent increase is more than 10%. The rules are different for Section 8 and other subsidized tenancies.
Q: My landlord lost the property in foreclosure. Can the bank that acquired the place at the foreclosure sale make me leave right away?
A: No. If the bank wants you to move out, it will need to serve a written notice telling you to move out. In most cases, the new owner has to give you a 90-day termination notice, and if you have a rental agreement for a fixed term, like a one-year lease, you may be able to stay until it expires. There are some exceptions, so call our Tenant Foreclosure Hotline at 1-888-495-8020 for more information.
Q: I moved, and my landlord won’t return my security deposit. What can I do?
A: The landlord is required to return the deposit, or document legitimate deductions, within 21 days after the tenant vacates. The landlord can deduct for unpaid rent, costs to repair damages caused by tenant or tenants’ guests, cleaning of the unit to return the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the inception of the tenancy and other limited bases. See Civil Code Section 1950.5 for more details. The landlord cannot deduct for ordinary wear and tear. If your landlord fails to return the deposit, write a letter to the landlord demanding the deposit back. If that doesn’t do the trick, you can sue. The landlord may be liable not just for the amount of the deposit but for up to two times the amount of the deposit as a penalty for withholding the deposit in bad faith. Usually, security deposit cases are filed in small claims court where you can seek up to $7,500.
Q: I want to know about my rights as a tenant. Where should I begin?
A: The California Department of Consumer Affairs has tenant rights information on its Web site, www.dca.ca.gov. Nolo Press puts out a book called California Tenants’ Rights. Tenants Together provides a free copy of the Nolo book to members who donate at least $25 to the organization. You can also look at Tenants Together’s Web site, www.tenantstogether.org, for more information about your rights as a tenant.