As rents go sky-high, where are the tenant attorneys?


Carli Hosford and her French bulldog Margo pose for a photo in front of Hosford’s Fresno apartment complex, where she faces an additional $150 in monthly rent after her lease expired. Photo by Edward Smith.

published on December 15, 2021 – 1:59 PM
Written by Edward Smith

The notice Carli Hosford received saying she owed an additional $150 on her $825 monthly rent came as a three-day notice to pay or quit. Hosford had paid her rent on time but said she felt blindsided when she found an additional 18% charge on her rent for not renewing her lease. The 2019 Tenant Protection Act limits rent increases to 5% plus inflation, which in a worst-case scenario should not be more than 10% together in a year. Hosford helps her parents out with their rentals and she considers herself reasonably familiar with the law. What she didn’t know was that apartment complexes that have been renting for less than 15 years are exempt from the rule.

 

Help available?

One of the major functions of the Fresno County Bar Association is to refer people to attorneys for their various legal needs.

When The Business Journal called for an attorney specializing in tenant representation, the reporter found there were no more.

Following the pandemic, that list of attorneys had dwindled to nothing.

“Even in the private Bar, there’s not nearly enough [attorneys] as there needs to be,” said Brandi Snow, legal director for Central California Legal Services, Inc., who handles the county’s legal claims in housing.

Snow said legal advisors for the nonprofit law firm were told to stop referring tenants to the Bar Association because there weren’t any attorneys to refer. The firm, along with a couple firms the City of Fresno had contracted with to handle administration of rental relief money, were the only representatives Fresno County has for unlawful detainers (evictions). Robert Cortez, co-supervisor for the housing team at Central California Legal Services, said considering number of those cases, they “could use as much help as possible.”

“There’s times we have to limit the cases we take because we just don’t have to the bandwidth to assist everyone who requested assistance,” said Cortez.

Snow tried to gather data on how many evictions are taking place. Based on previous years, Snow estimates CCLS receives between 4% to 5% of unlawful detainer cases happening in Fresno County. She doesn’t know how the pandemic has shifted that number, but in 2020, they handled 681 housing cases in Fresno, Tulare and Merced counties. As of Nov. 24, they have taken on 809 cases.

 

Here comes trouble

Tenants are facing issues outside of eviction notices.

Marcus Marshall, a youth pastor at People’s Church, moved to the Dominion Courtyard Villas in north Fresno at the height of the pandemic.

He signed a 14-month lease in July 2020 for $1,390 and by September the lease was ended. When he went to resign the lease, they informed him that rent would now be $1,850.

Marshall had heard from friends and contacts about The Tenant Protection Act that limited how much rent could be raised. He asked the property management company how rent could be raised over $400. He was told that because they were not a corporation they were exempt from the law. Marshall said they also told him that the pre-Covid rate was $1790 and so they were in actuality only raising it $60. Marshall said he had never seen the amount before.

Calls and emails made to Scott Ellis Enterprises, which owns and operates Dominion Courtyard Villas, were not returned by press time. A call to the apartment complex was answered. They said the complex had been built in phases in 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2017.

Marshall had only been in California a little over a year and did not know of his options. His only option — he felt — was to pay it or leave.

Having only a month to act, Marshall was in a rush to find a new place.

Most of the places he looked were either completely booked with long waitlists, priced above his budget or in a part of town he didn’t feel safe. He did eventually find a place to live with reasonable rent, but not without paying a new $1,200 deposit along with the cost of moving.

“The moving part wasn’t even the stressful part,” Marshall said. “The stressful part was having to fight to keep my rent from going up $400.”

Being new to the state, Marshall didn’t know much about the laws, but if he had known about his options and about the law, he said he would have pressed a little bit harder.

 

Off and on

The way most tenants have resolved complaints via the Tenant Protection Act, said Cortez, is by simply not paying the rent increase. The nonpayment then goes to court by way of an unlawful detainer and the courts sort out the matter.

But Cortez says he has only seen a few cases go this way. What he has seen more often are rentals being taken off the market. He suspects they come back on very soon afterwards at a higher rate.

Following the Covid protections, getting an eviction is much harder, said Cortez. Once a tenant has left a unit, that unit is no longer covered by the Tenant Protection Act and rent can go up to whatever the market will bear. To take a property off the market only requires 30-days notice and usually doesn’t require a reason outside the property is being taken off the market. A common reason for this is to do work on the property.

“The landlord simply has to state that ‘I gave the tenant notice that I’m withdrawing from the market and the tenant is still there,’” Cortez said.

Cortez said of the 10-12 cases he takes on a month, at least half are withdrawals from the rental market and that number has only been increasing.

“It’s very uncommon for me to go a week without seeing one of those types of cases,” said Cortez. “My suspicion is landlords want to increase the rent beyond 10% and this is an easy way to do that.”

There is no minimum time a property has to be out of the market before it goes back on, said Cortez, so a landlord can in theory that same month begin looking for new tenants at market value. A property has to be completely vacated in order to be no longer on the rental market, so Cortez sees it more with home rentals rather than apartment complexes.

 

Representation matters

Snow referenced a Princeton study saying whether a tenant is evicted or not usually depends on their legal representation.

Cortez said there are attorneys available for hire, but for many tenants, paying for an attorney can be hard for someone already facing rising rents. Most rental contracts have a clause in them that states legal fees for the prevailing party in a legal dispute will be paid for by the party that lost the judgment, said Cortez.

But that can be rare. Cortez said in most cases where there is representation on both sides, the matter is settled outside of court, meaning tenants are still on the hook for legal fees. More often, the clause outlining how attorneys get paid is used against non-represented tenants, said Cortez.

Attorneys are facing a brave new legal world following Covid protections, said Cortez. The slew of legislation at both the federal and state levels have made predicting how cases will go much more difficult.

“It does bring confusion into predicting how the courts will react and what the court’s interpretation of these statutes are,” said Cortez. “Since they’re so new I don’t think many of these statutes have gone to the appellate level for further review. For a private tenant attorney, I can see where it would be not very attractive to take a case where it’s hard to predict what the outcome would be.”





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