Fresno Needs a Right to Counsel for Tenants

By James Mendez

There have been several recent articles in the Fresno Bee/Fresnoland on the housing situation in Fresno. More than 50% of Fresno residents are renters. More than 60% of Fresno renters are cost-burdened by their rent, meaning they pay more than 30% of their household income for housing. In many cases, renters spend more than 50% of their household income on housing.

Since 2020, the Right to Counsel (RTC) Coalition has been working to get the City of Fresno to institute the comprehensive Right to Counsel Community Program, which would help low-income households avoid evictions.

In 2019, the RTC Coalition began studying the housing situation in Fresno. A comprehensive proposal was developed and first presented to the Fresno City Council in December 2020, and presented again in January 2021.

Several services would be provided to tenants and landlords in an effort to increase housing stability and avoid evictions. Studies have shown that the most effective way to decrease evictions is to provide legal representation to tenants who have been served with an eviction notice.

The RTC Community Program would provide access to legal representation in eviction court to all income-eligible tenants in the city of Fresno. The tenants’ attorney costs would be covered by the program. The program would also cover outreach services and provide an ongoing independent evaluation of the program.

The RTC Coalition has identified funding sources in order for the City of Fresno to fund the $1 million RTC Community Program.

In March 2021, members of the RTC Coalition requested and obtained a scheduled time to speak at the April 8 Fresno City Council meeting. The RTC Coalition planned to ask the City Council to support the RTC Community Program. One week before the meeting, Council President Luis Chavez placed the competing Renter Mediation Program on the agenda. The Renter Mediation Program is an inadequate response to a growing problem.

Several community members attended the April 8 City Council meeting. Through eComments and oral public comment, residents asked the City Council to support the RTC Community Program. Strong opposition was voiced to Chavez’s Renter Mediation Program.

The RTC Community Program provides legal representation to income-eligible tenants facing eviction. Chavez’s proposal provides only voluntary, non-binding mediation between the landlord and the tenant. Chavez’s proposal does not offer any legal representation to the tenant.

Currently, less than 1% of Fresno County tenants have legal representation in eviction court. More than 75% of landlords have legal representation. If a tenant loses, in addition to the rent, the person is often ordered to pay the court costs and the landlord’s legal fees. A proposal without legal representation for tenants does not prevent eviction or decrease homelessness.

Although there was no Council support for Chavez’s weak and inadequate proposal, so far not one member of the City Council has shown support for the RTC Community Program. No member of the City Council volunteered to put the proposal on a future agenda for discussion, review and a vote. None has responded to the needs of the majority of Fresno residents who would benefit from an RTC program.

Rather, just as in the past, the City Council appears to be listening only to a small number of Fresno’s wealthy and privileged who have donated to their campaigns. Those donors do not represent the majority of Fresno residents. Those donors represent the interests of landlords, developers, real estate and businesses.

Similar proposals in many other cities throughout the nation and California have been effective in keeping people housed and decreasing homelessness by decreasing evictions. Support the RTC Community Program by contacting your Fresno City Council member at 559-621-8000.

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James Mendez came to Fresno in 1977 for his medical residency training at what was then called the Valley Medical Center. He stayed to practice medicine and raise a family. He is now a retired physician and a community activist.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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