An embattled central Fresno apartment complex is undergoing an intense, all-encompassing renovation, but many residents are growing impatient waiting for repairs to reach their homes.
Brad Hardie, president of Regency Property Management, was hired by Summerset Village Apartments owner Chris Henry – at the behest of the city of Fresno – to tackle 207 pages of code violations unearthed by inspectors after news broke that residents had been without heat for several weeks in November.
The gas was shut off due to unsafe conditions in many of the units – most of which house southeast Asian refugees. The crisis was bad enough to prompt Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to declare a local state of emergency, which was unanimously approved by the Fresno City Council on Nov. 30.
Hardie has nearly 40 contractors working nine-hour days to complete the fixes as soon as possible, but some residents are still living in apartments with broken heaters, mold and boarded-up windows. Hardie said he was doing his best, but it would probably be about 60 days until work is completed.
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Henry – who in November was called a “slumlord” by many, including Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier – has spared no expense so far, Hardie said.
However, Henry still owes advocacy group Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries – which cared for many Summerset residents during the gas shutoff – half of a $25,000 donation.
City officials say they may not try to collect the $290,000 in fines that Henry owes them for the code violations.
‘A tough situation’
Hardie inherited a tough situation.
Chris Henry “hired us to manage things with the on-site manager, the tenants, the workers, the city and the media until this thing is resolved,” Hardie said as he walked through the construction areas. “It’s a lot to coordinate.”
The renovations began about two weeks ago. Hardie said each unit had its heat repaired by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and that he worked to fix any emergencies. Then the full-scale renovations began on the southwest side of the complex.
Nov. 12The date most of the Summerset residents had their gas shut off. The city learned of the problem on Nov. 20, and emergency repairs took about a month.
Hardie said he’s been directed by Henry to “make every unit perfect.” So far, Henry has spent around $500,000 on the fixes. Hardie expects that number to double – at least – before all of the 200 or so units are fully renovated.
So far, five buildings have been completed. The units feature new hardwood floors, kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures. Forty-four units have been inspected thoroughly by city code enforcement and have passed.
Renovations are expected to be completed in the next 60 days. Hardie has offered some of the open, newly renovated units to people whose apartments may not be renovated for a month or more, but no one wants to move.
“It’s a tough situation,” he said.
The other side of the complex
Gon Nanthadeth offered a Bee reporter a tour of his unit on the northwest side of the complex. Unlike the renovated apartments shown off by Hardie, the B unit of the 2127 building was wrought with problems.
The heater did not work. The bedroom roof leaks heavily, causing water to drip into a pink bucket placed on one side of the room. Green mold is spreading across the roof. Darker mold lines the roof of her bathroom. A board holds the window closed, but Nanthadeth said it does a poor job of keeping out the rain and cold. Some of the other units in the area have similar boarded windows.
“They tell me that ‘We’ll get to it,’ ” Nanthadeth said. “We’ve had mice. I don’t want to pay my January rent until things are fixed.”
Summerset residents were not forced to pay rent in December.
Henry exposed over 1,000 residents to Third World conditions in the city of Fresno.
Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines during the emergency meeting on Nov. 30.
When confronted with Nanthadeth’s claims, Hardie sprang into action. He pulled one of his contractors into the mobile office he’s set up at the complex, gave him some quick instruction and sent him to the unit.
Hardie then walked to the unit himself. The mold is to be fixed immediately. The heater’s pilot light was not working, which the contractor blamed on PG&E. Hardie ordered that it be fixed, as well. He offered Nanthadeth’s wife, Cathy Bounavong, one of the new units. She declined. He persisted, saying fixes could take a month or more. She said that time line would be fine.
“See?” Hardie said as he left the unit. “They don’t want to move. It’s tough.”
Hardie said this unit was “the worst one we have” and had “the only ceiling with mold.”
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman Denny Boyles said that PG&E employees never “fix heaters” – they perform safety checks and notify property managers of any issues.
FIRM fights back
Zack Darrah, the executive director of FIRM, has been in the proverbial trenches since the beginning. It was his organization that scrambled to find blankets and heaters for hundreds of residents during subfreezing temperatures. He alerted the media and city officials of the problem in November. His office has remained open for any residents with issues in the two months since the gas shutoff.
He said he believes major progress has been made, but some residents are still having heat problems. When asked about the tenants’ reluctance to move into renovated units, he explained that many of these people have lived in the same apartment for 20 or 30 years. It’s been their only home, and they’ve formed small communities with their neighbors. There are around six different languages spoken throughout Summerset, so many would be moving to where they could no longer communicate with their neighbors.
The American Red Cross and California Southern Baptist Disaster Relief were called into help feed and care for the Summerset residents during the outage.
Although progress has been good, Darrah is planning to fight back. He’s secured a $20,000 donation that will go toward forming FIRM’s own task force, which will include a housing attorney and several tenant advocates familiar with Fresno building codes.
This group will go to every door in Summerset – and other refugee communities – to help tenants report every issue they’re having with management or ownership. The attorney will be kept on retainer to draft letters to those involved and file suit, if needed.
“That’s where the hammer is,” Darrah said. “Advocates are ignored. We call, and someone says ‘Yeah, we’ll get right on that,’ and nothing happens.”
Darrah is experiencing that firsthand. Henry, the owner of Summerset, a Kern County oil company and at least three popular restaurants throughout California, promised FIRM a donation of $25,000. He gave them $12,500, but he’s not paid the rest and is not responding to emails, Darrah said.
Numerous attempts by The Bee over the last month to reach Chris Henry were unsuccessful.
The city backs down
Del Estabrooke, head of Fresno’s code enforcement, said he’s pleased with Henry’s and Hardie’s progress at Summerset. He’s so pleased that the city has suspended the $290,000 in fines for the hundreds of code violations discovered in November. Henry had initially been ordered to pay the fines by Jan. 6.
“As long as he (Henry) is making a good-faith effort, we’re good,” Estabrooke said. “If he stops progressing, we have those fines we could always pursue.”
Estabrooke said he visits the complex several times a week, and that four of his employees are assigned to the property. Every unit will be inspected once Hardie gives them the OK, he added.
Although the Fresno City Council and other city leaders were adamant in November that Henry pay for both the violations and the renovations, that may not actually happen.
Should the renovations be completed in the next few months and every unit pass, Estabrooke will recommend to City Manager Bruce Rudd that officials not pursue the fines.
“No – if everything is good, I don’t think we will need to fine him,” he said.