A coalition of tenants and housing advocates gathered outside Fresno City Hall on Thursday — three weeks before a revised ordinance on blighted properties goes before the City Council — to urge city officials to do more to protect the health and safety of renters.
For the past nine years, one of those tenants, Jose Lopez, 21, has been left in the the dark — literally.
Along with mold, cockroaches and broken tiles that make his mom trip and fall in their one-bedroom apartment in the Lowell neighborhood, Lopez has been without a working ceiling light in his bedroom since the fifth grade. He’s a junior in college.
“I always hoped for inspectors,” Lopez said. “I never saw any come.”
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He said their landlord made a couple repairs. His light was fixed once, which quickly busted, so he bought a cheap lamp. And the landlord finally hired some neighborhood teenagers to install new tile. But the job was so bad the family of four had to pull up the tiles because Lopez’s mother continued to trip on them.
“The mold is there. The roaches are there. It’s real,” Lopez said. “They are not tolerable conditions. They are not decent. They are not human. This is what you do with animals.”
Lopez gave up hope — that is, until recently, when he learned there are people fighting to help people like him.
One of those is Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director of Tenants Together. She said the city should sue a number of negligent landlords and do a better job of enforcing the law.
Without that, she said, the city is sending a message to landlords that it’s acceptable to break the law. “And that’s why Fresno has probably the largest percentage of slum properties in the state at this point.”
She said about half of Fresno’s population are renters. Why hasn’t more been done to help them?
“I think there’s not the political will,” Simon-Weisberg said. “I think that they (city leaders) think property owners are more valuable than people.”
City Hall disagrees. “The city regularly cites property owners for noncompliance with city ordinances,” said Jennifer Clark, Fresno’s director of development and resource management. She said her department receives two calls a week, on average, requesting home inspections and that afflicted renters can always call (559) 621-CITY to complain.
Many groups at Thursday’s rally, attended by about 60 people, called for healthy homes for Fresno families: Faith in Community, Tenants Together, Lowell Community Development Corp., Housing Alliance of Fresno, Planned Parenthood, Fresno Partnership, Laborers Local 294, Fresno Metro Ministry and No More Slumlords.
The coalition has two primary goals: address the blight of vacant, boarded-up properties, and make conditions livable for renters in substandard housing.
A revised vacant property ordinance is expected to be brought before the City Council on April 30. A code enforcement task force made up of elected leaders and community advocates has been working with city officials on the revamp.
“My big concern is we have both occupied and unoccupied properties owned by slumlords that are in horrible conditions because there has never been good enforcement,” Simon-Weisberg said. “The excuse that was given (by the city) when they were handed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of photographs and mountains of evidence was that they didn’t have an ordinance that had enough teeth so they could prosecute. Now they’ve come back with an ordinance that is completely teethless. It is way weaker than the one they had … If I had to choose between what they had before and what they have just done, I would go with the old one, absolutely.”
Simon-Weisberg said language has been changed from “shall enforce” to “may cite” and the revised ordinance no longer requires a vacant property plan to be submitted. Such a plan tells the city how a property owner will improve an empty rental.
Clark said no vacant property plan is no problem. “While a vacant building plan will no longer be required, the new ordinance is just as strong. The existing ordinance gained full compliance for a few hundred properties a year. The new ordinance could result in substantial exterior blight compliance for thousands of properties per year.”
Community advocates want to make sure other ordinances are also revised to better protect renters: City Council should prevent landlords from advertising substandard units for rent until they are ready for tenants to move in; code enforcement should check more units through a routine inspection program; and the city attorney needs to file suit against landlords who refuse to make repairs.
Clark said she will continue to meet with community groups, but that negligent landlords are already being held accountable. “Noncompliance results in fines, citations and property liens. In the new code, the worst offenders could be pursued for criminal penalties, fines, injunctions and/or receiverships.”