Last year, Fresno leaders announced an effort to take on blight in five older neighborhoods. On Monday, Mayor Ashley Swearengin unveiled an expansion of her Restore Fresno initiative to 10 additional neighborhoods in central and south Fresno.
Restore Fresno, which started in May 2015, represents the city’s effort to not only reduce conditions of blight and substandard housing through more code enforcement sweeps, but also to battle crime and promote leadership among residents in each of the neighborhoods. The first five neighborhoods were near El Dorado Park, west of the Fresno State university campus in northeast Fresno, and the areas near Jefferson, Kirk, Lowell and Yokomi elementary schools.
Swearengin announced the expansion Monday at Jane Addams Elementary School in west-central Fresno. She was joined by City Council members Esmeralda Soria, Oliver Baines and Clint Olivier, whose districts include the neighborhoods covered in the expanded program, as well as Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson.
The targeted elementary or middle school areas are the Addams, Slater, Williams, Webster and Fort Miller neighborhoods in central Fresno; the Leavenworth, Hidalgo, Winchell and Vang Pao neighborhoods in southeast Fresno; and the Columbia and King school neighborhoods in southwest Fresno.
In the first five neighborhoods, city staff established baseline data for each neighborhood’s strengths, weaknesses and code enforcement challenges. They helped build neighborhood leadership through community development corporations and targeted code enforcement to the highest priorities in each community. After a while, Swearengin said, more residents became engaged and test scores went up.
For the 10 new neighborhoods, Swearengin met with Fresno Unified’s Hanson, the Fresno Housing Authority, Fresno Police Department and code enforcement staff to identify the areas that would benefit most from community partnership.
“We know that a big determination of success for any school is the quality of a neighborhood a child is walking to school in every day, and the more stable that neighborhood is, the more likely that school has a chance to succeed,” she said.
Hanson said the Board of Education has modernized school sites, worked with the city to make green space at 14 schools available on weekends, offered free meals to students during the summer, and added school resource officers at middle schools and chaplains at elementary schools. He said those efforts improve school and community pride. This new effort, he said, will similarly make a big difference in the way families view their community.
Swearengin has been targeting specific neighborhoods for revitalization since she first took office. City Councilman Oliver Baines remembers people saying her tactics wouldn’t work.
“For four decades many of our inner city neighborhoods have been left behind, really with no strategies for success,” he said, adding that he is happy the city now has a holistic approach to revitalization.
Michaelynn Lewis, 64, has been part of the city’s effort in the Kirk neighborhood since 2012. She regularly attends meetings with the revitalization group, has cleaned alleys, helped her neighbors plant greenery in their yards, participated in a forum for blighted housing and two community carnivals.
Lewis said the neighborhood has improved “tremendously.” There are fewer boarded-up homes, more working street lights and more children playing outside. People feel safer walking around at night, and fewer consider moving away, she said.
Swearengin said the city will add three or four staff for a total of about 15 people working in four teams that work through each neighborhood. Targeted revitalization efforts last between six and nine months, she said. The year-long effort is estimated at more than $1 million. All of the areas are eligible for money the city has received through the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
The city’s 2016-17 budget, approved by the Fresno City Council in June, included money to expand the revitalization program by adding staff to create more neighborhood revitalization teams. The city expects to fill six more positions by December, which will bring to four the number of inspection teams dedicated to the Restore Fresno program in the 10 new neighborhoods as well as continuing the efforts in the first five neighborhoods.
The Fresno Bee investigated the issue of substandard housing and code enforcement in a special report published in May. That project, “Living in Misery,” found that many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions in neighborhoods plagued by blight.
The investigation, as well as the city’s renewed focus on substandard housing and blight, came in the wake of notorious revelations last fall of squalid living conditions at Summerset Village, an apartment complex that is home to dozens of low-income families in central Fresno.