Fresno renter Jessica Ramirez has an eviction on her record and knows how hard it can be to find new housing. She's now part of a growing movement of renters in Fresno pushing for a right to counsel. (Alex Hall/KQED)
When it comes to eviction court, tenants are far less likely than property owners to be represented by an attorney. That makes it especially difficult for them to understand their rights and navigate the complex system.
The right to counsel is something that tenant advocates are pushing for across the country, and more cities and states are considering it, especially in light of the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this episode of Sold Out, we’ll go to Fresno in California’s Central Valley, where rents are rising, and meet tenant advocates who have organized to push for a right to counsel. And we'll also visit New York, where this movement took off, and speak to the activists behind it.
LANDLORD V. TENANT [TRANSCRIPT]
ERIKA KELLY, EDITOR: I'm Erika Kelly, the editor of Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America, here to say thank you for listening to the show.
Our team is wrapping up the season, and we'd love to know what you thought about it, what you liked, what you didn't like. Most importantly, we'd like to know a little more about you, our listener. What issues or stories [do] you want to hear more of in the future?
We head up to the fourth floor where eviction hearings start every Tuesday morning at 8:30. Today, there are about 20 cases on the docket.
ROBERT: So 90% of the time we're in 404, which is just down the hall.
MOLLY: The room is small, no windows. There are a few rows of benches that are about half full. It’s not as packed as it was before the pandemic. Many hearings are still happening on Zoom. Robert points out some lawyers in the room. He calls them the regulars.
ROBERT: About four or five regular landlord attorneys are here every day.
MOLLY: Robert tells me one of the attorneys also serves as a debt collector for the landlords he represents. He collects past due rent from tenants who’ve been evicted.
ROBERT: He gets these unrepresented clients to agree to these deals that are payment plans basically. And they go on for years, like five, six, seven years.
MOLLY: I couldn’t record inside the courtroom while trials were underway. But I’ll say — you didn’t miss much. There’s a reason you never see TV shows about eviction courts. There’s not a lot of drama. Usually, you don’t call witnesses or present evidence. And a lot of times, evictions aren’t even decided in the courtroom.
The action is out in the hallway.
(Sounds: Door opens and closes.)
ROBERT: You’ll see a lot of dealmaking out here in the hallways. A lot of times attorneys will come outside and, you know, see if there's a deal to be made.
ERIN: That’s how most cases end up: in deals or settlements. And that’s what Robert’s trying to do for his client Lea Esparza. Lea came to Robert after the court had already issued a default judgment against her, which is basically an automatic win for the landlord. It happens when tenants don’t show up or don’t file their paperwork in time.
In Lea’s case, she tried to file her paperwork. The problem was she’d hired a paralegal off of Craigslist to help her fill it out.
LEA ESPARZA: She charged me $500 and she didn't turn in the paperwork. That's why we ended up with the lockout.
ROBERT: So the sheriff is scheduled to come to the residence on Thursday. So what I'm trying to get the judge to do is delay that sheriff.
LEA: Yes, they said they were going to come at 6 a.m. and lock me out.
MOLLY: Lea had to stop working about a year ago after she was diagnosed with cancer.
LEA: I am battling cervical cancer and I'm also battling — I just had a surgery three months ago.
MOLLY: She says after this morning’s hearing she’s going back to the hospital for another surgery. And if her eviction goes through, she doesn’t know where she and her kids will go.
LEA: I got four daughters and myself and like I said, I do, I am battling my health, so I don't think I have anywhere to go. I don't got family around here.
MOLLY: Robert has just come out of a small mediators’ room with the landlord’s attorney. He and Lea huddle in a corner of the hallway, and keep their voices low. He’s got good news: Lea can stay through the end of the year, 109 more days. He’s also gotten her rent payments lowered to about $2 a day.
ROBERT: A lot of this work is delaying the inevitable. Sometimes eviction is inevitable. But we just try to get as much time as possible, so the client's not on the street.
ERIN: Lea willeventually have to leave. But the deal is way better than what she could have negotiated on her own.
Most people don’t have someone like Robert on their side. These eviction cases move quickly and play out in courtrooms every day. And wherever you go, there’s the same imbalance: Landlords have attorneys. And tenants don’t.
JOHN POLLOCK: And that kind of representational imbalance yields the kind of results you would expect, which is it's just completely one-sided.
JOHN: The tenants always lose, and half of them don't even participate in the process because it is such a hopeless, disempowering process right now.
MOLLY: He says many tenants get pushed into deals that are on the landlord’s terms. And that’s why Pollock says tenants need attorneys, too.
(Sold Out theme song begins.)
MOLLY: Think of it this way: We grant defendants a right to an attorney in criminal cases. Why should it be any different for housing court?
JOHN: From our perspective, these are very serious proceedings on par with criminal ones in terms of the consequences.
ERIN: Now, the eviction protections put in place during the pandemic are expiring. And, eviction courts are filling up again. As they do, the calls for change are getting louder. Because tenants and their allies say the current system isn’t fair, and it needs to change.
(Sold Out theme song ends.)
ERIN: On a windy morning last spring, a couple dozen people gathered outside Fresno City Hall.
There were tenants, faith leaders and housing advocates. And they were there to call attention to evictions in their neighborhoods.
A SPEAKER AT CITY HALL: What is a home when one is renting from a landlord who abuses their power dynamic and refuses to fix these conditions and then threatens to evict tenants who complain?
ERIN: They directed their protest to the city council, which was meeting inside the gleaming stainless steel building. On their agenda was a proposal to help tenants avoid eviction. Outside, a local pastor, D.J. Criner, took the mic.
D.J. CRINER: Are you going to hold landlords just as accountable as landlords think they're holding residents? Are you going to give individuals an opportunity to have legal aid?
MOLLY: Renters held signs and shared their stories about the rent going up, about being forced to move, about worrying for their children. One of them was Jessica Ramirez, a mother of five who was born and raised in Fresno.
She was evicted a few years ago and didn't have an attorney to help her out. Now with that on her record, it’s almost impossible to find new housing. Speaking to the crowd, she held up her eviction papers.
JESSICA RAMIREZ: This is why I'm here today, I'm here to raise my voice. You know, this voice that I have is not for one, but for many.
MOLLY: She shared how she and her family had to live in their car. How her kids had to bathe themselves in the restrooms of a public park.
JESSICA: You know, many out here in this world. You know, I live. This is a struggle. I'm in pain. You know, you guys don’t know how it is, living in the streets.
MOLLY: Pastor Criner called on the city council to protect renters like Jessica.
D.J.: This is about a call to action. Speak for this young lady and mother of five that is praying for an opportunity to raise her children in the same decent housing you're able to raise yours in. So we studied the problem. We found the solution. We wrote the proposal, and the money has already been found. The question is now, are you listening and are you going to do something about it?
ERIN: Fresno City Hall is in the middle of downtown. It’s densely packed with tall office buildings. But you don’t have to drive far before you’re surrounded by farmland.
Fresno sits at the center of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Founded as a railroad town, it’s grown into an agricultural powerhouse. It’s also been an affordable city in an extremely unaffordable state, at least until recently.
CLIPS FROM FRESNO RENT NEWSCASTS: "The real estate market is buzzing in the valley."
"According to a story in The Los Angeles Times called Fresno the hottest market in the country."
"Monthly rent in Fresno has soared over the last year — experts cite high demand and low inventory."
MOLLY: Driving around Fresno, you can almost feel the hype. Everywhere you go, there are these advertisements for new housing developments.
Alexandra Alvarado has felt it, too.
ALEXANDRA ALVARADO:The Central Valley has this myth of affordability that, like, people can just come in and afford it and be able to buy houses.
MOLLY: She’s always lived around Fresno. She grew up in a small town nearby, moved here for college. Alexandra is now a community organizer with a group called Faith in the Valley — the same group that organized the tenant protest outside City Hall. She says the idea of Fresno as an affordable place ... is part of what’s driving up prices.
ALEXANDRA: Especially during the pandemic, when people were working from home, we were running across stories of people from the bay or from LA that were saying, oh, I could buy two houses in Fresno.
MOLLY: Even before the pandemic, there are anywhere from three [thousand] to 4,000 eviction filings in Fresno each year. That’s according to a 2019 report from two researchers at Fresno State University.
AMBER CROWELL: So that's a lot of people. And it was, you know, 200 or 300 families a month.
MOLLY: That’s Amber Crowell. She wrote the report with her colleague Janine Nkosi. They also work on housing advocacy with Faith in the Valley.
Janine and Amber spent months observing eviction hearings at the Fresno courthouse, the same place I met up with Robert and Lea. And they saw a lot of the same disparities that I did. Landlords had lawyers, and tenants didn’t. Here’s Janine:
JANINE NKOSI: I could literally cry right now when I think about it. Three, like maybe three people, were able to get some type of legal representation in housing court.
JANINE: The challenges that we are experiencing, they are not so different than what folks in the Bay Area, right, or Northern California, are experiencing, or in Southern California, but they are happening at an accelerated rate. We have the highest need and the fewest amount of resources.
[HOST]: What Janine and Amber found inspired a growing coalition of renters, faith leaders and students — one that only grew as economic shutdowns during the pandemic made it harder for tenants to pay their rent, tenants like Shar Thompson.
SHAR THOMPSON: I'm a single mom that works two jobs. So, you know, it's really tough.
MOLLY: Shar works part time at Costco. When her shift ends in the afternoon, she heads to her second job at Walmart, where she works overnight stocking shelves. Shar’s from the Central Valley. She grew up in a small farming town nearby called Coalinga.
SHAR: If you drive down I-5 and smell the fresh air of cow manure, that's Coalinga.
MOLLY: She moved to Fresno during the pandemic and was having trouble paying her rent. She found Faith in the Valley when she Googled local rent assistance programs.Then she started showing up at meetings, learning about her rights as a tenant, and discovered what was possible when she worked alongside other renters.
SHAR: There's passion behind it from everybody. And I love the fact that we're all from different walks of life, but we all have the same main goal and that's to make a whole new housing system.
ERIN: Shar and the other Fresno renters had specific demands for the city. They wanted every tenant fighting an eviction to have an attorney: a right to counsel.
But they took it even further. They wanted the city to connect tenants with rent relief. And create a diversion program to help tenants andlandlords avoid the courtroom altogether. By early last year, their proposal was ready for the city council.
SPEAKER AT CITY COUNCIL: Thank you. Last item — that's public item that we have is 4-B, it's a workshop to discuss right-to-counsel proposal.
MOLLY: Jessica Ramirez, the same renter who spoke outside City Hall, called into this meeting, too.
JESSICA: I am one of many that are speaking out asking for help because I know it only takes one eviction on someone's record to change their lives forever.
MOLLY: But there’s pushback from landlords and within City Hall. Here’s City Council member Garry Bredefeld.
GARRY BREDEFELD: So I know. Imagine, I guess we're pretty flush with money at the City of Fresno, and now we're going into the rental tenant defense business. I don't see any way that I will support these kinds of things. I don't think this is what we should be doing.
[HOST]: Renters continued to pressure the city for months to vote on their proposal. But eventually, it became clear: A true right to counsel was not going to pass.
Here’s Amber Crowell, the eviction researcher at Fresno State.
AMBER: It was tough. It was a tough battle. And we didn't get everything we wanted.
ERIN: What they got was something of a compromise. The city calls it the Eviction Protection Program. It’s not for all tenants — just the ones who are being wrongfully evicted, like if their landlord's retaliating against them, or illegally locking them out.
Amber and other housing activists think only a small number of tenants will qualify or even know the program exists, leaving many still vulnerable.
MOLLY: But City Councilmember Tyler Maxwell is more optimistic.
TYLER MAXWELL: I can tell you, it is an uphill battle to get where we're at today. I'm happy we're able to get our foot in the door.
Nearly all of them were able to avoid trial. For the few who did go, most were able to get the eviction off their record. And that’s important, because having an eviction on your record can lock you out of new housing.
ERIN: The program is only funded for one year and Tyler hopes they’ll extend it. But a right to counsel is still a pretty radical idea for Fresno, and he thinks there’s always going to be some people questioning whether it’s worth it.
TYLER: Why are we giving away free things? You know, why? Why are we providing something for free for people? You know they need to pick themselves up from the bootstraps, which, representing a district like I do, I know that's a bunch of B.S. — picking yourself up by the bootstraps doesn't work when you can't afford the bootstraps.
Amber Crowell and Janine Nkosi say renters in Fresno can’t back down now, even if it feels like a battle between David and Goliath.
AMBER: The groups that represent property owners are much more powerful politically than the groups that represent tenants. And so that's just an ideology that we're always fighting against.
JANINE: You know, it's always a battle between individual rights versus, like, collective care and collective responsibility.
MOLLY: They say it’s a battle worth fighting. And you can’t win anything if you don’t ask for it.
JANINE: We are made to believe that these are big asks, but we should be dreaming much, much bigger than we ever have been.
ERIN: Fresno isn't the only place to fight for a right to counsel.
Coming up on Sold Out: where the movement first began.
CROWD CHANTING: Housing is a human right. Fight, fight, fight.
RANDY DILLARD: Good morning, good morning, good morning. My name is Randy Dillard and we are facing an eviction crisis in the Bronx.
MOLLY: Randy Dillard wears a bright orange T-shirt. On it is a fist thrust in the air. He energizes the crowd outside New York City Hall in lower Manhattan. It’s 2013 and he’s part of a tenants group in the South Bronx.
RANDY: Representation for tenants in housing court should be a right.
MOLLY: Randy was familiar with housing court. Before he was an organizer, he worked as a bricklayer. A single dad with five kids, Randy was on Section 8, but his apartment was not up to code.
RANDY: We have mold all over the apartment. We had leaks coming from up above into an open-light fixture in the bathroom that could have started a fire. We had to put plastic bags up.
ERIN: He said the leaks were so bad, sometimes they had to use an umbrella inside the house to keep from getting wet.
Because of the conditions, Randy’s home failed a Section 8 inspection, so the government program stopped making payments to his landlord. And then he developed emphysema and ended up in the hospital.
RANDY: And they was getting ready to put me on a breathing machine 'cause my lungs was getting ready to collapse. I almost, almost died.
ERIN: He was in the hospital for two months. Three days after he got out, he got a knock on his door.
RANDY: My landlord's lawyer served me with eviction papers.
MOLLY: Randy says going to housing court to fight his eviction was confusing and scary. When he got there, he was met with long lines and little information.
RANDY: It leaves you numb, and empty inside. As soon as you get there first, you don't know what to look for and you've got a long line of people. And some of them are emotional, crying, you know, while you waiting in line to go through the metal detector to get in there.
Ultimately, Randy did end up getting an attorney. He found someone through a legal help group in his neighborhood. His case took almost two years, but he eventually won, an outcome he says would have been impossible without his attorney.
RANDY: I don't think no tenant should have to go through what me and my kids went through, and no tenant should have to stand before a judge and not know what their rights are.
CASA and a coalition of housing groups pressured the city to adopt a right to counsel. Organizers made the moral case that no one should have to face something as life-altering as losing your home without the benefit of an attorney.
Susanna Blankley was the group’s director at the time.
SUSANNA BLANKLEY: It meant the right to not face eviction alone. It meant the right to know that you would be protected. It meant the right to have power within the court system.
MOLLY: The coalition kept pushing, whipping up support wherever they could. First at a neighborhood board meeting, then City Council hearings, delivering a petition with 7,000 signatures to the mayor’s office. They even got the chief judge of the New York court system to testify in support of a right to counsel.
Until finally, after three years of organizing, New York City tenants made history. And won something that didn't exist anywhere else in America: a right to counsel.
ERIN: When the program rolled out in 2017, it guaranteed most low-income tenants access to an attorney if they're facing eviction. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the legislation at CASA’s offices in the Bronx. Standing beside him was Randy Dillard.
(Sounds from the moments when Mayor Bill de Blasio was signing the legislation.)
RANDY: The reason why I'm here today, you wouldn't be able to see me if I didn't have an attorney. That's why I'm standing up here. That's why I’ve been fighting with the coalition and with CASA to make this possible.
MOLLY: In a video of the signing, Randy has this big smile on his face. Afterward, de Blasio turns to him and hands him the pen. He still has it today, framed on his wall.
RANDY: I introduced the mayor and I, and I spoke. They let me speak. It was powerful.
It was something that I had never imagined. Something that big that I will be a part of. I never looked at it starting out when we was fighting for it. I only looked at it, that is something that needed to be done.
MOLLY: And early results show it’s working. Since a right to counsel passed in 2017, more than half a million New Yorkers have gotten legal representation. And 84% of them were able to stay in their homes.
ERIN: Fewer evictions means fewer households falling into homelessness. A cost-benefit analysis on New York City predicted it would save $320 million, most of it in emergency shelter costs.
When a tenant is guaranteed an attorney, it also changes the way landlords use eviction courts.
SUSANNA: We've seen filings go down. It means landlords are suing people less. You see people show up to court way more because they believe that they have a chance to win.
MOLLY: It might not be surprising to hear that landlords don’t welcome the right-to-counsel laws. Sam Gilboard is the senior manager of public policy at the National Apartment Association.
SAM GILBOARD: It prolongs an already lengthy process. When you have a right to counsel, you're prolonging an experience that is stressful. It's costly.
MOLLY: Sam says landlords try to avoid evictions whenever possible.
SAM: Evictions are the only legal pathway that a housing provider has to dealing with issues of nonpayment or breach of lease. It's a last-resort measure that is used in only the most dire of circumstances.
MOLLY: Instead, Gilboard advocates for different solutions — like more rental assistance.
ERIN: But landlord opposition isn’t the only challenge. Legal defense programs are expensive. New York City budgeted $166 million for right to counsel this year. And not every city has that kind of money.
BRANDI SNOW: It obviously costs money to pay lawyers to do that, somebody has to pay for it. And there is a resistance in some places to the idea of using taxpayer money to assist those who didn't pay their rent.
ERIN: The other issue is bandwidth, and having enough tenant attorneys to make sure they can actually take those cases.
BRANDI: When you're lacking enough attorneys for it now, you've created this right to something that you can't provide.
MOLLY: But that isn’t stopping this idea from taking off.
BRANDI: Across the country, you're seeing more of these right-to-counsel programs pop up that are doing amazing things. You know, New York has it, Cleveland has it, San Francisco has this also, and so does LA.
MOLLY: Last year, Washington became the first stateto pass it. John Pollock with the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel says that’s a big deal.
JOHN: It's everything. It's the fact that we went from having no jurisdiction with the right to counsel, to having 13. So, you know, from a movement standpoint, I think it's really come to a high point.
MOLLY: In the last year, 11 more states have introduced the idea. John says the pandemic is driving a lot of the interest.
ERIN: Even President Joe Biden is paying attention. Right to counsel and other court diversion programs were the focus of a White House summit last year.
And that’s the biggest win for tenants like Randy Dillard, who started this fight — that it didn’t stop with New York City.
RANDY: For other cities to follow, to me, is a great achievement, and I never knew that I would ever be a part of something so great. I feel good. I really do. And you know, knowing that somebody like me that was getting ready to go in front of a judge can sleep a little bit peaceful at night because they got somebody fighting for them.
MOLLY: It’s a reminder that movements don’t happen overnight. They’re usually built on small victories. But sometimes they turn into something bigger that shifts the power and changes the narrative, and gives tenants the right to a fighting chance to stay in their homes.
(Sold Out theme song begins.)
ERIN: Next time on Sold Out: We go to the root of the problem — how to keep people housed when they can’t pay the rent.
KEMANIE: Knowing that we had the housing voucher, we thought it was going to be easier because it was a guarantee.
EVA ROSEN: It can be really hard to find a place to live with that voucher at all.
EUGENE ZINCHIK: It's like dealing with the DMV. It's, you know, we've all been there, but you know, we don't really want to do that, unless we have to.
ERIN: I’m Erin Baldassari.
MOLLY: And I’m Molly Solomon. You’ve been listening to Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America.
If you like what you hear, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts — and tell a friend about the show!
Sold Out is a production of KQED. This episode was written and reported by us: Molly Solomon and Erin Baldassari.
ERIN: Adhiti Bandlamudi produced this episode. Kyana Moghadam is our senior producer. Brendan Willard is our sound engineer. And Rob Speight wrote our theme song.
Natalia Aldana is our senior engagement producer and Gerald Fermin is our engagement intern.
Thank you to our editor, Erika Kelly. Additional editing from Jessica Placzek and Otis Taylor Jr.
MOLLY: We couldn’t have made this season without Ethan Toven-Lindsey, Holly Kernan, Erika Aguilar and Vinnee Tong. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll see you next week.