Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd will ask the City Council to take the first step Thursday toward increasing penalties for landlords who ignore citations for violations that endanger renters’ health and safety.
“The bottom line for me is that it makes no sense that you could have somebody with no heat or a gaping hole in the roof, and they get the same level of penalty as someone who allows the grass to be overgrown or have rubbish on the side of a unit,” Rudd said Wednesday. “We’re trying to delineate that there’s a higher standard of care for an occupied rental unit than what we’ve seen in the past.”
Under the city’s current process, if code enforcement inspectors find deficiencies, the owner can be cited and given 18 days to fix the problems. If a follow-up inspection shows the problems remain, inspectors can assess a fine of $200. That can increase to $500 after a second follow-up visit, and rise to $800 if the problem remains unresolved after a third visit.
By that time, Rudd said, some cases have already run three months or more.
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“The cost of these penalties doesn’t seem to be creating much of an incentive or sense of urgency with some of these property owners to get around to correcting the violation,” Rudd said. And in some cases owners need to secure building permits because the needed repairs are so expensive that they require a contractor rather than a handyman.
Thursday’s first step is to introduce an emergency ordinance to amend the Fresno Municipal Code sections on citations and penalties. That measure would repeal a $1,000 cap and establish new tiers of fines for code violations that create a danger to health or safety. It also creates a new rule that would double the fines for landlords who are deemed “egregious violators” – owners who have three cases of building code or health and safety code violations at any properties they own within the city in a 12-month period.
As an emergency ordinance, the law would take effect immediately upon final approval Nov. 3, Rudd said. The ordinance requires “yes” votes from five of the seven City Council members to pass.
That approval would coincide with changes Rudd is proposing for the council’s Nov. 3 meeting for the city’s Master Fee Schedule, including boosting fines for landlords who ignore health and safety citations to $800 for a first notice, $1,200 for a second notice and $1,600 for a third notice.
Fresno attorney Patience Milrod, in a letter this week to the City Council, said she generally supports the amendments. But she also expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the city’s efforts.
“The measure falls far short of offering relief to tenant families that the city is required to protect,” she wrote.
“Without a systematic inspection system that methodically lifts up for exposure all of the slumlords in our community, this ‘enforcement’ measure is just more talk with few likely results,” Milrod said, referring to political sparring among Fresno’s leaders over Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s hopes to require interior inspections of rental units throughout the city. “Unless this council is prepared to go after all such property owners, how can we in the public believe you’re sincere about this measure’s tough-talk ‘deterrent effect’?”
“Many fewer tenant families would be suffering right now if the city actually, seriously, enforced ordinances that already exist,” Milrod added. “Even if your council passes this new ordinance, it does nothing to fix the city’s seriously deficient execution of the existing enforcement system.”
Rudd said he understands Milrod’s concerns and noted that the city is taking steps to bolster its enforcement. His office established a special Strike Team on Problem Properties, or STOPP, program late last year in the wake of highly publicized problems at the Summerset Village apartments in east-central Fresno. And the code enforcement division is adding more staff members to fill vacancies to increase its enforcement capacity.
“This is just another step in trying to put some teeth into code enforcement, especially when it comes to occupied substandard housing,” Rudd said. “I hope the industry takes this as how serious we are that if you end up not correcting these violations … the price of failing to address them in a timely manner is going to be rather expensive.”