Lee Brand, a Fresno mayoral candidate, city councilman and property manager, is crafting his own approach to a rental housing inspection program in hopes of reaching a compromise with industry leaders because he says Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s version wouldn’t have enough votes to pass.
Swearengin wants the city to begin inspecting the interiors of rental units to ensure residents live in safe and healthy conditions. But the code enforcement task force she assembled almost a year ago to help craft a policy has wrangled without success over the cost and procedures for routine inspections. The task force includes people on all sides of the issue, from property managers to housing advocates, and has heard from experts on best practices for inspections.
Advocates for low-income tenants say they want to see an interior inspection ordinance adopted before the mayor’s term is up at year’s end, but some are concerned the effort is being controlled by the people who would be regulated.
“This feels like a continuation of a pattern in Fresno of monied interests getting to influence policy decisions,” said Andy Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Faith in Community, who has attended many task force meetings. “Those closest to the pain – in this case, tenants – are not as significantly considered.”
Fresno may have 50,000 to 60,000 landlords – no one knows for sure. The city has about 85,000 rental units, more than one-third of which are single-family homes.
Swearengin said in July that the city could complete a registry for rental properties by 2017, complete a baseline inspection of all rentals by 2018 and be ready to go after bad landlords with code enforcement actions in 2019. She said this week that she favors a universal baseline inspection so every property owner is treated the same way, but is taking other ideas into consideration.
A four-month investigation earlier this year by The Bee called “Living in Misery” found many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in substandard conditions. Advocates say the city’s lack of an interior inspection program allows slumlords to operate.
85,000 The number of rental units in Fresno
The city already has a system for inspecting properties that have repeated code violations, calls for police and fire and other unsafe conditions. Landlords targeted by city manager Bruce Rudd’s “strike team” must correct problems or face legal action, but the process is slow and laborious.
Opponents to Swearengin’s approach say they agree something needs to be done about substandard housing, but that the best solution is to target known slumlords instead of casting a wide net, which would waste time and resources.
“Our staff and our professionals know – we already know where the bad actors are, so let’s craft a policy that goes after those people,” said Council Member Steve Brandau.
Baseline a challenge
Establishing a baseline inspection is the biggest point of contention. Housing expert Alan Mallach said a universal baseline, which is used in cities including Los Angeles, is “very important” to improving the quality of rental housing. Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a national organization that studies how vacant and substandard housing affects cities.
Brand, Brandau and Council Member Clint Olivier said outright that they wouldn’t support a universal baseline inspection. Councilman Paul Caprioglio called it a “lofty goal.” Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria and Councilman Oliver Baines’ chief of staff Greg Barfield said they need more information. Councilman Sal Quintero said it would be hard to pull off legally.
Olivier said universal inspections violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. He found legal cases against such inspections, including a federal judge’s ruling last year that a southern Ohio city’s inspections of rental properties without a warrant were unconstitutional.
Brand agrees with the mayor that a rental property registry is needed. Beyond that, he wants to consolidate housing laws, which are found in several places of the city’s code, to make them easier to enforce. Next, he wants to assign penalties based on the severity of the violation, so that property owners aren’t fined the same amount for a ripped window screen as for a gaping hole in the ceiling.
As for inspections, he would use code enforcement files to determine which properties have a history of health and safety violations. Property owners would self-certify that they meet health and safety standards, and a certain percentage would be audited.
Self-certification, which is used in cities like Sacramento, is preferred by the California Apartment Association but opposed by low-income housing advocates. They say it leaves too much room for irresponsible owners to lie about the condition of their units. Properties that already are regulated, including Housing Authority and tax credit properties, wouldn’t be required to participate in the city’s program.
Brand would develop a tiered system for inspections, with property owners who are proven to maintain their properties responsibly audited less often than those with known violations or failed self-inspections. The tiered system is acclaimed by Mallach and other experts.
He said one of the sticking points is money. He said the housing industry already is inundated with bureaucratic fines and fees, so his challenge is to find a solution between using city money or charging property owners for inspections.
It’s likely that neither the advocates for an interior inspection program nor the landlords will be in support of what the administration recommends.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin
Levine, of Faith in Community, said anything short of universal inspections is not the full solution, but he is open to a proposal that provides immediate relief to families who live in substandard housing.
“This is just the cost of doing business,” he said. “Every restaurant in the city is routinely inspected for health and safety. Why should this be any different?”
Brand has met with low-income housing advocates and will meet with the California Apartment Association this week. He hopes to bring a proposal to the City Council by the end of this month.
“I believe the way it’s being approached now from a political standpoint is not going to solve the problem,” he said. “There’s a lot of resentment. In the current version, I don’t believe there’s four votes.”
Swearengin said she hasn’t reached the point of counting votes because she still is evaluating the best approach, now with Brand’s help. Once there is a clear view of how best to proceed, she will take it to the council.
“It’s likely that neither the advocates for an interior inspection program nor the landlords will be in support of what the administration recommends,” she said.
Both Swearengin and Brand want an ordinance adopted by the end of the year. With three months left in her term, it’s a matter of making good on one of the biggest promises of her administration. For him, it’s about having a say in regulations – which would also affect his business – in case he loses the election.
The rest of the council has yet to hear what Brand has in the works. Some expressed doubt that the mayor has enough time to pass an ordinance.
“If we’re going to wait for the people on the task force to agree, we’re going to be waiting a very long time,” said Olivier, who is a member. He thinks it’s time for the debate to be taken up by the council.
Caprioglio said the most practical approach is to stay the course with the city manager’s strike team and continue working with the task force to refine the plan until it becomes the best version to take to the council for a vote. He doesn’t think that can happen before Swearengin leaves office.
Quintero said he has seen previous administrations put plans into place just before leaving office and have the next administration refocus money to different issues.
“Will the new administration be as committed as this one to follow through?” he asked.