This story was produced by Fresnoland, a nonprofit news organization that partners with The Fresno Bee.
The Fresno City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to help renters who have been displaced as a result of uninhabitable living conditions.
The “Tenant Relocation Benefits Following City Order to Vacate Due to Immediate Health and Safety Risk” ordinance will provide funding to renters who must relocate because the Fresno City Code Enforcement office deems their home uninhabitable.
The Fresno City Council approved a motion to allocate $50,000 of the 2022-23 budget for the program, along with more than 90 other council budget-related motions on Thursday afternoon. The final budget will be approved June 30.
Council Vice President Tyler Maxwell, who introduced the ordinance and made the funding motion, said on the eve of the votes that the goal of the program is to prevent homelessness before it occurs.
“It’s always easier to prevent homelessness on the front end, making sure people are not displaced, than trying to address it once they’re already on the streets,” Maxwell said.
Why the relocation program was introduced
Maxwell said at the council meeting that he learned after speaking with the City Attorney’s office – which oversees Fresno’s Code Enforcement – that tenants being displaced due to egregious conditions out of their control “was a bigger issue” than he imagined.
According to Code Enforcement, notices against occupancy were not issued during the COVID-19 emergency orders. Only 19 notices against occupancy have been issued since 2019. However, Maxwell said that number is expected to rise now that the COVID-19 emergency order has been terminated.
Looking for a new rental after being displaced is challenging because of limited availability of rentals in Fresno as well as high rents. The average rent for one-bedroom vacant rentals as of May 2022 in Fresno was $1,044 and $1,311 for two-bedroom rentals, according to ApartmentList.com.
Many applications for rentals require a fee, and landlords are allowed to charge roughly $55 per application as of December 2021, according to the California Apartments Association website. Landlords are legally allowed to charge $30 plus an adjustment for the annual consumer price index.
In California, landlords also are allowed to charge a security deposit that is equal to double or triple the monthly rent, depending on if the rental is furnished or not. Some landlords charge first and last months rent up front.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of Fresno renters are cost burdened – spending more than 30% of their income on rent – making it difficult to save up for a move.
“Most people in my district don’t have the disposable income to pay for one month’s rent, let alone two months rent, and deposit, and utility deposit,” said Maxwell, who represents District 4 in central and east Fresno. “It leads to these folks becoming homeless in the process, which is the last thing we want in this city.”
The relocation program is meant to ensure that tenants are afforded the rights provided to them under Health and Safety Code housing laws.
A local relocation program would enforce existing laws
Current California laws require landlords to provide relocation assistance, equal to two months of the fair market rent, if the rental is deemed uninhabitable by local code enforcement, and substantial damage was not caused by the renter.
The 2022 fair market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno is $904; a two-bedroom is $1,137, according to California Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The law also states that local jurisdictions can implement policies to pay renters the relocation assistance, then recoup the costs from property owners. The Fresno relocation assistance ordinance is based on that portion of the law, “to step up when will not and relocate these folks for up to two months,” Maxwell said.
“Most landlords are doing the right thing … but there are those bad actors that are not putting folks up,” Maxwell said Thursday.
Maxwell said that in the event a person is displaced because Fresno Code Enforcement finds their rental unit to be uninhabitable, and their landlord does not provide relocation assistance that meets state standards, the displaced tenant could qualify for the relocation funds from the city.
Prior to the Thursday vote, Councilmember Garry Bredefeld said he was supportive of the ordinance; however, he wanted to ensure that funds only go to renters whose uninhabitable living conditions were outside of their control. Assistant City Attorney Christina Roberson assured Bredefeld that the money would not be available to tenants who caused substantial damage.
The program also would not provide funds to renters whose housing is damaged by natural disasters, according to state law.
How the relocation program works
The relocation program would offer up to two months worth of the fair-market rental rate in Fresno – for example, up to $1,808 for a one-bedroom accommodation.
In addition to providing funding to displaced tenants, the city would ensure that landlords who fail to follow state laws would be penalized. The ordinance also authorizes the Fresno City Attorney’s Office to recover 150% of any relocation costs that the landlord fails to pay to renters.
Karla Martinez, a housing community organizer with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said during public comment that she believes the relocation assistance is a “step in the right direction.” However, she questioned whether the program would provide enough assistance and how it would be publicized to the community.
“Now to move, the high security deposit, moving expenses, rent application fees and so much more have caused the financial burden for folks,” Martinez said. She added that she believes renters who are displaced because of uninhabitable living conditions they didn’t cause should be able to receive their security deposit back in full.