The city of Fresno gave itself a potentially powerful tool in dealing with recalcitrant property owners who let burned-out, blighted or unsafe homes or buildings sit for weeks or months without any repair efforts.
The City Council unanimously approved an urgency ordinance Thursday giving hearing officers the immediate authority to not only levy fines against property owners who have been cited for serious code-enforcement violations, but also to compel them to make repairs under threat of increased fines and criminal prosecution on misdemeanor charges.
The ordinance comes as The Bee is concluding a four-month investigation into substandard housing conditions in Fresno. A special report is slated to publish in May.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd and Code Enforcement Manager Del Estabrooke pointed to numerous cases of buildings that have gone untended by their owners, even after they have been cited for violations. But until now, the hearing officers have lacked the power to do anything beyond simply upholding the fines for citations.
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“In some cases, buildings have gone through hearings, and fines assessed or reduced, but the hearing officer has not compelled (the owner) to do anything,” Rudd said. “At the end of the day, nothing changes, and residents (in the area) have to keep putting up with the same things going on for three or four months.”
The city’s action follows a drastic situation at Summerset Village Apartments last fall. There, hundreds of residents of the complex went without natural gas service for about a month. As a result, they did not have heat. One elderly woman has contended in a lawsuit that her husband died from the pneumonia he contracted during that time.
The new ordinance immediately obligates hearing officers to order an owner to repair or demolish the building, or to show a good-faith effort to begin making timely repairs. After a hearing, the owner “has 30 (to 60) days to start making the improvements; they’ve got to show that work is being done,” Estabrooke said. “If he’s making good on a promise, we can keep working the system so he can get things done. … If there’s no work, the hearing officer can take the fines that are already in place and double it.”
It’s unclear how many owners could face the new, tougher consequences. “The number of properties that will be subject to the ordinance passed (Thursday) will be driven entirely by the property owners’ willingness to cooperate,” Rudd said after the vote.
The number of properties that will be subject to the ordinance passed (Thursday) will be driven entirely by the property owners’ willingness to cooperate.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
In many cases, Rudd said, a situation doesn’t even get to the point of a issuing a citation “unless we’re getting no cooperation from a property owner.”
When the city receives a complaint, an inspector visits a property and determines the condition and nature of the needed repairs, after which a notice of violations is sent to the property owner. The owner then has 18 days to begin taking steps to solve the problems. If there is no progress, the city issues a citation, which launches the hearing process.
“We can be into this thing for 30 to 45 days, and then it can be another 30 days before a hearing officer hears the case, and then a decision can take another two weeks,” Rudd said. Some of the examples Rudd and Estabrooke showed the council “started as far back as November of last year” and still the owners have taken no steps to fix their properties.
Among the nuisance conditions triggering citations and hearings in the ordinance are chronically boarded-up homes, building code violations, and overgrown weeds, all of which “contribute to criminal activities, deadly structure fires, property damage and other health and safety-related issues.”
“I’m encouraged to see that we’re putting some teeth into the ability for a hearing officer to go and collect,” said District 1 Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, who represents east-central Fresno.
District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau also referred to teeth in the law. “I think this is a well-thought-out approach that tries to take both sides of an issue and hold both sides accountable to fix properties that are neglected,” said Brandau, whose district covers much of northwest Fresno. “This gives some teeth to a policy that can fix properties in the city.”
Estabrooke said a commercial building on North Abby Street south of Belmont Avenue was a prime example of the frustration his department has faced. After an initial fire ravaged the building in December 2014, the shell remained boarded up for more than a year, and two more fires occurred at the site. “After the third fire, there was so much structural damage that we were finally able to abate,” Estabrooke said. “But this thing went on for over a year.”
“When you take someone to court, things get done,” he added. “People seem to change their tune and start making repairs” when facing criminal charges. A conviction for misdemeanor charges can result in fines or jail time, or both.