As Fresno leaders debate whether to initiate an interior inspection program of rental housing, members of a code enforcement task force, landlords and residents met with representatives of a company that could manage such a program.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin wants the city to start inspecting apartment interiors within two years. Her administration has looked for ways to hold landlords accountable for rental units that are unsafe and unhealthy.
But with five months left in her term, Swearengin has yet to produce a draft inspection ordinance for City Council review. And the task force, which Swearengin assembled eight months ago to help craft an inspection policy, continues to wrangle over the cost and procedures.
The efforts have been undertaken after residents at Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno went without heat and hot water last November during a cold snap. The Bee’s four-month investigation “Living in Misery” published earlier this year brought to light poor living conditions throughout the city where landlords take advantage of low-income tenants.
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Kelli Furtado, assistant director of the development and resource management department, which oversees code enforcement, introduced the task force last week to Nan McKay and Associates, a company that has helped many cities around the country develop inspection programs.
Nan McKay helps cities adopt the inspection ordinance, design the program and then implement it.
Like previous task force meetings, the proposal drew debate among task force members from opposing perspectives. Landlords said the costs will be onerous and inspections could lead them to displace tenants. Tenant advocates said routine inspections would enforce existing health and safety laws, which should already be enforced.
On Wednesday afternoon, Michael Petragallo, vice president of inspections at Nan McKay, responded to questions – and complaints – from property owners and managers who filled nearly every seat in the City Council chambers.
Petragallo started with a rhetorical question: “How many of you are excited for a fee-based program?”
No one raised their hand. Some chuckled.
He said a routine inspection program should focus only on health and safety issues and establish clear goals that are fair to both owners and tenants. That approach, he said, leads to higher quality rental units, reduced crime and higher property values. A good program comes with incentives for responsible property owners and enforcement for those who are irresponsible, he said.
Then came a flood of questions from the audience.
“This all sounds very preliminary. Is there an action written draft we can look at?” The short answer: No – the task force is working on that.
“Most of us sitting in this room are wondering just what size is this problem?” City Manager Bruce Rudd said that’s the million-dollar question. The city doesn’t know.
Several landlords interjected, saying the city’s substandard housing issue is minor. Rudd said that’s not true, based on his experience leading a code enforcement strike team that has taken on several owners of substandard apartments around the city since January.
Rudd said there are three groups of landlords: The good guys, those who are on the edge, and those who will keep deferring maintenance “until they’re in an orange jumpsuit.” He said an inspection program will mainly motivate those in the middle group.
“I know you’ll say, ‘Then why am I paying to fix everybody else?’ Well, why do you pay taxes for a police department?” he said.
Others asked about tenant responsibility, saying tenants destroy units or bring cockroach infestations with them. One woman said she has a screening process, but that it’s impossible to manage peoples’ daily lives.
Petragallo, who said he also owns property, said that’s the nature of rental housing. “Things happen,” he said.
He said around half of properties probably have one or more health and safety issues, though many are small, inexpensive repairs. But the point of routine inspections is that larger issues do exist, he said, adding that he’s seen awful conditions, including walking into an apartment to see a rat chewing on a mattress with a baby nearby.
“As a human being, it’s painful to see these living conditions,” he said.
Many landlords in the room said they rented Housing Authority units, which already are subject to yearly or biannual inspections. Petragallo said Fresno leaders could design a program that exempts those units from a city inspection.
Housing experts say inspection program fees shouldn’t raise rent prices by much more than a few dollars a month. Some landlords aren’t convinced. Bryce Hovannisian, who manages JD Home Rentals, one of Fresno’s biggest property management companies, said he suspects rent could go up by $25 or more a month if landlords have to hire more employees to oversee inspections.
For families living below the poverty line, he said, that’s less money going toward food or other vital expenses. There are advantages to an inspection program, he said, including that responsible owners would get clean bills of health. “The concern is whether we create a situation where we’re pushing people out of Fresno.”
Last month, a substandard housing expert at the Center for Community Progress told the task force that building a landlord database is key to improving the quality of rental housing. Right now, no one knows how many landlords Fresno has, and an apartment registry could take up to a year to build.