This story was produced by Fresnoland, a non-profit news organization partnering with The Fresno Bee.
The Fresno City Council has unanimously approved an ordinance intended to help tenants who are homeless as a result of uninhabitable living conditions.
The Tenant Moving Benefits Following a City Order to Eviction Due to Immediate Health and Safety Risks ordinance will provide funding for tenants who must move because the Fresno City Law Enforcement Office considers their home uninhabitable.
The Fresno City Council approved a proposal to allocate $50,000 from the 2022-23 budget to the program, along with more than 90 other council budget proposals Thursday afternoon. The final budget will be approved on June 30.
Council Vice President Tyler Maxwell, who introduced the decree and introduced the funding proposal, said on the eve of the vote that the goal of the program was to prevent homelessness before it occurred.
“It is always easier to prevent homelessness on the front end, and make sure that people are not displaced, than it is to try to tackle it once they are already on the streets,” Maxwell said.
Why was the resettlement program introduced?
Maxwell said at the council meeting that he learned after speaking with the city’s attorney general’s office — which oversees Fresno law enforcement — that tenants displaced by atrocious conditions out of their control “was a bigger problem” than he had imagined.
According to Code Enforcement, no notices against occupancy were issued during COVID-19 emergency orders. Only 19 anti-occupancy notices have been issued since 2019. However, Maxwell said that number is expected to rise now that the COVID-19 emergency order is ended.
Searching for new rent after displacement is difficult due to limited rents in Fresno as well as high rents. According to ApartmentList.com, the median rent for one-bedroom vacant rentals as of May 2022 in Fresno was $1,044 and $1,311 for two-bedroom rentals.
Many rental applications require a fee, and landlords are allowed to charge approximately $55 per application as of December 2021, according to the California Apartments Association website. Owners are legally allowed to collect $30 plus an annual CPI adjustment.
In California, landlords are also allowed to charge a security deposit equal to double or triple the monthly rent, depending on whether the rent is furnished or not. Some landlords charge a rental fee for the first and last month in advance.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of Fresno’s renters bear the cost burden — spending more than 30% of their income on rent — making it difficult to save on moving.
“Most people in my area don’t have the income available to pay one month’s rent, let alone two months’ rent, a deposit, and a utility deposit,” said Maxwell, who represents District 4 in central and eastern Fresno. “This results in these people becoming homeless in the process, which is the last thing we want in this city.”
The resettlement program aims to ensure that tenants are given the rights granted to them under the housing laws of the Health and Safety Act.
Local resettlement program would enforce existing laws
Current California laws require landlords to provide resettlement assistance, equivalent to two months of fair market rent, if the rent is deemed uninhabitable by local law enforcement, and the tenant has not caused significant harm.
The 2022 fair market price for a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno is $904; A two-bedroom apartment costs $1,137, according to the California Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The law also states that local jurisdictions can implement policies to pay tenants to assist with resettlement, and then recover costs from property owners. Maxwell said the Fresno Resettlement Assistance Act is based on this part of the law, “to escalate when landlords have not relocated these people for up to two months.”
“Most landlords are doing the right thing…but there are these bad actors who just don’t do their best,” Maxwell said Thursday.
Maxwell said that if someone is displaced because Fresno law enforcement finds their rental unit uninhabitable, and the landlord does not provide resettlement assistance that meets state standards, the displaced tenant can qualify for resettlement money from the city.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Councilman Gary Bridfield said he supported the decree; However, he wanted to ensure that the money only went to the tenants whose uninhabitable living conditions were beyond their control. Assistant City Attorney Christina Roberson assured Bredefeld that the money would not be available to tenants who had caused significant damage.
The program also won’t provide money to renters whose homes have been damaged by natural disasters, according to state law.
How does the resettlement program work
The resettlement program will offer up to two months off the fair market rental price in Fresno—say, up to $1,808 for a one-bedroom residence.
In addition to providing funding for displaced tenants, the city will ensure that landlords who fail to comply with state laws are penalized. The ordinance also authorizes the Fresno District Attorney’s Office to reimburse 150% of moving costs that a landlord fails to pay to tenants.
Carla Martinez, a community-based housing organization working with the Leadership Advisor for Justice and Accountability, said during a public comment that she believes resettlement assistance is a “step in the right direction.” However, I wondered if the program would provide enough help and how it would be disseminated in the community.
“Now to move, the higher security deposit, moving expenses, rental application fees, and much more have taken the financial burden off people,” Martinez said. She added that she believed that tenants who were displaced due to uninhabitable living conditions they did not cause should be able to get the full security deposit back.