In a back alley near downtown Fresno, about 40 people gathered Thursday for a candlelight vigil beside several vacant, boarded-up homes -- a blight they consider one of the city's biggest problems.
The disheveled yards and dark, abandoned houses create a "psychological and spiritual devastation" in neighborhoods that is unacceptable, said Bryson White, a community organizer for Fresno's Faith in Community group and a minister for Saint Rest Baptist Church.
The vigil, spearheaded by Faith in Community, asked for a meeting with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and city officials to help draft an ordinance that would prevent "slumlords" from purchasing new properties.
Crystal Moran, a student at Roosevelt High School, talked about the hardships of living next to an abandoned home. The blight brought prostitutes, unattended children and drug use next door, she said.
"We had reported all this, however, we saw no sign of police," Moran said. "Once those neighbors had left, we thought the nightmare was over, but we were wrong. It was the beginning of something worse."
White's concerns about the city's abandoned properties increased last year while talking to residents during a "Night Walk" -- a coalition of church groups who walk the streets to help reduce street violence. While walking in Brookhaven in southwest Fresno, White said, group members spotted 22 abandoned homes owned by JD Home Rentals. Faith in Community believes the company owns many of the city's blighted properties.
White said JD Homes needs to clean up abandoned properties. And in Brookhaven, residents told White some of the properties sat vacant for five years.
"JD Homes is not actively trying to rent those properties," he said, "and we've heard the same from people in different neighborhoods."
Bryce Hovannisian with JD Home Rentals has a different perspective.
"The number of vacant homes managed by the company at any one time is a function of the economy," Hovannisian said in a written statement. "In our experience, during slower economic times it can take longer to rent homes, so sometimes there may be more vacancies. At all times, JD Homes works to comply with the city of Fresno's rules that require vacant homes to be boarded-up, because we understand that it is an important public safety issue, and we share the community's concerns about keeping neighborhoods safe."
White said the Fresno Police Department considers 45% of the city's abandoned properties a "public nuisance" because the houses are used for drug sales and use, prostitution, gang hangouts and other illegal activities.
"Addressing the problem of abandoned properties will show all Fresnans that we are all equally respected," White said.
As the group gathered in a circle in an empty, littered lot near railroad tracks, a moment of silence before their group prayer was interrupted by a man's yelling inside a home nearby and a barking dog.
The blight begins long before homes are abandoned and boarded up, when landlords failed to maintain properties, some said.
Randy White, who lives near Thursday's gathering and ran a tutoring program in the neighborhood for 15 years, talked about the shocking living conditions he saw over the years, when dropping kids off at their homes: Buckets to catch water leaking from ceilings, faulty electric wiring and bug infestations.
At one home, a succession of three families moved in and out of one home without ever having a working heater, White said.
"I would like to see the city's code enforcement take a more proactive role," he said. "I feel some tenants are afraid to call code enforcement."
Phil Skei, a pastor for On Ramps Covenant Church, said housing issues, at the most fundamental level, are really about "creating a safe space from the elements" to protect families and people.
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