The owner of the boarded-up east-central Fresno house that burned Sunday, killing five people and injuring a sixth, was well known to the city of Fresno as a negligent property owner, officials said Monday.
The city has levied fines against the owner since 1996, but has collected none of the money. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said the city has done all it could to pressure the owner, Brian Rossene of Englewood, Colo., to fix his properties.
“It is an absolute tragedy,” Swearengin said Monday. “It is something that was totally avoidable had the property owner complied with the city’s vacant building ordinance.”
Local anti-slum activists, however, believe the city could do more to force property owners to maintain abandoned houses, such as regular property inspections and even criminal charges.
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Sunday’s fire was reported about 6:45 a.m. in the long-abandoned house at 1444 N. Archie Ave, near McKinley and Cedar avenues. Four people were declared dead at the scene and a fifth died later at Community Regional Medical Center.
The Fresno County Coroner’s Office on Monday identified two of the people who died: Patricia Zambrano, 34, and William Morales, 56, both of Fresno.
The other three victims identified Sunday were: Irene Hinojos, 36; Monique Amaral, 28; and Anthony Zavala, 37.
A sixth person who was pulled from the house was listed in critical condition Sunday at Community Regional Medical Center. That person’s identity has not been released.
Hinojos had five children who lived with her mother three blocks away from the home on Archie.
Michael Hinojos, her brother, said she had brought food from their mother’s home over to the Archie house after midnight Sunday, which she did often. She stayed the night.
“My mom saw all the food was gone,” he said. “I guess at least they died with full stomachs.”
Michael Hinojos said if she stayed the night that usually meant she was using drugs and she knew not to return to her home if she had.
“We all love her, but we didn’t like what she was doing,” her brother said. “We all knew they hung out there.”
It is an absolute tragedy. It is something that was totally avoidable had the property owner complied with the city’s vacant building ordinance.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
The fire was the second catastrophe linked to code enforcement violations in the last month. The residents of the nearby Summerset Village Apartments, near Fresno Street and Clinton Avenue, were without heat and hot water for about a month because of unsafe conditions that forced PG&E to disconnect the complex’s natural gas supply.
Chris Henry, who owned the apartments, was fined more than $250,000 for around 140 pages of code violations. He commissioned repairs on the gas lines, and service was returned to the residents over the past weekend.
When asked if these two issues warrant additional action from the city, such as stepping up its existing code enforcement hiring, Swearengin said no – the city already was doing all it legally could.
She said that a new law was passed in May, new staff was hired to carry out that law and a citywide survey was conducted to find all boarded-up houses and serve their owners with notices to bring these properties into compliance.
The owner of the Archie Avenue property, she said, had received multiple notifications and thousands of dollars in fines for failing to maintain the property as required by the ordinance.
In all, Brian Rossene has 109 total code violations within the city of Fresno. Three of his houses have been demolished under emergency circumstances.
A new law
On Sept. 11, the survey recorded the structure at 1444 N. Archie Ave. as a blighted house. The report indicates that the adjacent property, also owned by Rossene, and the scene of Sunday’s fire were in “bad” condition. It also notes that the house at 1444 N. Archie Ave. had a hole in the side of it.
On Sunday, Fresno fire spokesman Pete Martinez said the six victims entered the house by prying open a boarded-up window near the living room.
It is not clear if the people entered through this same hole or made a new one, as that portion of the house was heavily damaged in the flames. Fire investigators still are working to determine exactly what happened.
Jose Lara, who lives next door to the scorched house, said that code enforcement had been at the property several times in the last two months to board the house up again after “homeless people and prostitutes” ripped off plywood from one side of the house to re-enter it.
City spokesman Mark Standriff confirmed that code enforcement had been out to the property four times in November and twice in December to reinstall the boards.
He said the city “hadn’t gotten around to” forcing Rossene to replace the plywood barriers with the Lexan polycarbonate sheets required under the city’s ordinance. He said these sheets are more secure, can be seen through and melt during fires instead of providing more fuel, as plywood does. He said he didn’t know whether Lexan windows would have saved Sunday’s fire victims.
Standriff added that the ordinance has caused an unanticipated citywide shortage of Lexan.
Despite this oversight, Rossene clearly has been in the city’s sights for some time.
Standriff said Rossene owes the city $19,521 for code violations at 1444 N. Archie Ave. stretching back to 1996. The city has not received a dime from Rossene. Liens were placed on the property through the Fresno County Assessor’s Office – which is all the city can legally do in situations like this, Standriff said. The liens mean that Rossene would have to pay the fines in full before attempting to sell.
Rossene owns “a number of different properties” throughout Fresno, including the adjacent lot at 1450 N. Archie Ave., Standriff said. This property is also boarded up. In all, Rossene has 109 total code violations within the city. Standriff did not know the total amount of fines levied against him in the last 20 years.
Houses on three of Rossene’s properties have been demolished by the city due to emergency circumstances. Standriff said that if firefighters identify lead paint or asbestos in the recently burned home, the city would demolish it as well.
Code enforcement was called out to the Archie Avenue property on Sept. 30 due to reports of homeless people hanging around the property. In early October, the city notified Rossene of the various issues. Earlier this month, a mandatory $250-per-day penalty allowed under the new ordinance went into effect. Swearengin said daily penalties are the harshest punishment the city can legally impose.
Some activists believe the city’s efforts have been insufficient.
Janine Nkosi, a sociology professor at Fresno State who helped coordinate a student-run survey of blight in Fresno, said that 400 of the 1,200 houses surveyed were blighted. She was part of a task force of city employees, residents and property owners who met from October 2014 to April to draft the new ordinance.
Nkosi and her colleagues asked city attorney Doug Sloan if it would be possible to file misdemeanor criminal charges against negligent property owners. He said it was, but the cost would be too great for the city.
Nkosi asked the task force to consider allowing private attorneys to file suits against the owners. Sloan’s office would have had final say on these suits to prevent frivolous lawsuits. The task force – which she said was made up of mostly property owners and city officials – rejected the idea.
“They (slumlords) are banking on the continued failure of leadership in City Hall so that they can keep doing business as usual,” she said.
Faith in Community spokesman Andy Levine
called the ordinance approved in May a step forward, but it did not go as far as it needed to go. He recommends the city inspect every house in Fresno at least once every four years –a practice he said has been successful in other California cities.
“This reflects a consistently reactive culture at City Hall,” he said. “When these tragedies happen, that’s when we see some response and city action. But we’re hoping that a time will come where the city will be proactive.”