Fresno City Councilmen Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier announced Monday a resolution addressing substandard housing – their solution to a problem Mayor Ashley Swearengin has vowed to fix before she leaves office at year’s end.
The resolution, which will be up for discussion at Thursday’s council meeting, consists of two initiatives that together would make up a new division of code enforcement: an Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team and Landlord-Tenant Ombudsman.
Brandau called it “the solution to the city of Fresno’s slum housing problem.” He and Olivier worked on the proposal for around four months, with some help from the city attorney’s office.
Fresno’s problems of substandard housing were highlighted earlier this year in a Fresno Bee series called “Living in Misery.” It found that units all over the city are unlivable while landlords go without penalty due to the city’s lack of oversight.
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The plan would work like this: Tenants file complaints about housing health and safety issues to the ombudsman, who reviews them and then tells the landlord to fix the violations. If a landlord fails to address the issues, the complaint is transferred to the enforcement team manager, who can take action through civil litigation and, if necessary, criminal prosecution.
If significant violations are found at a property, the team would inspect other properties held by the same owner. The owner would be held legally responsible for violations, unless they can prove a tenant or occupant caused the damage past normal wear and tear. In that case, the team would go after the tenant or occupant.
Brandau and Olivier held a news conference in front of Summerset Village Apartments, where 1,000 tenants lived without heat and hot water for weeks last November. Brandau said that crisis exposed the city’s inability to identify and address slum housing conditions. He said the resolution is designed to address those shortcomings.
Code enforcement changes in wake of Summerset crisis: ▪ Creating a Strike Team on Problem Properties to focus on the most egregious property owners. ▪ Adding 10 code enforcement officers, two attorneys, a paralegal and a legal secretary to handle the increased code enforcement cases. ▪ Establishing a practice to take negligent property owners directly to court for health and safety violations. ▪ Adopting a policy to pursue personal judgments against negligent property owners. ▪ Adopting a policy to take distressed properties into receivership. ▪ More than doubling fines for the vast majority of code violations that pose health and safety threats. ▪ Passing an ordinance that allows the city to hold property managers and homeowners’ associations accountable for code violations.
The resolution actually appears similar to efforts already in place. If approved, the enforcement team would absorb and essentially expand City Manager Bruce Rudd’s Strike Team on Problem Properties. But Brandau said the two are “night and day” different.
The ombudsman position is a new concept. Other than Rudd’s strike team, Fresno’s code enforcement system relies on tenants to complain about their living conditions by phone, on the city’s website or anonymously through the FresGo app. Housing advocates have long said that system fails to address the problem because many tenants who fear landlord retaliation don’t report their conditions.
Olivier said the ombudsman would change that because it would be a specific, impartial person whose job is to support both tenants and landlords. He said he would need help from housing advocates to promote the position, and that if one person isn’t enough, he would add more.
It would also be mandatory for landlords to provide written materials to tenants, explaining the enforcement team and ombudsman. The materials would be translated to Spanish, Hmong and Lao.
“The people of this city are crying out for a link – someone who can respond directly to citizen complaints,” Olivier said. “This is our link.”
The resolution calls for one manager, six code enforcement officers, three attorneys, a legal assistant and a legal secretary, plus the ombudsman (a community outreach specialist) and an administrative clerk, with assistance from staff in other departments like police and fire.
Six of the 14 personnel would be reassigned from the STOPP team. The remaining eight people would add about $720,000 to the annual budget, and the program would cost almost $1.3 million total. Some of those costs would be recovered through fines.
Rudd’s Strike Team on Problem Properties includes 11 staff, though most juggle other duties. He sees the resolution as a duplicate of STOPP, with a few added positions.
“It sounds like they took the STOPP playbook and just put a different name on it,” Rudd said. “They took pretty much everything we’ve developed over the last 11 months. I guess I should feel complimented or happy that the council is recognizing the efforts of the administration.”
Swearengin added that while she thinks the councilmen mean well, “unfortunately, this resolution would water down the administration’s STOPP efforts by inspecting minimal units on egregious properties.” Under the resolution proposal, only a certain percentage of units would be initially inspected. If significant violations are found, all units in the complex would be inspected.
“If that was intentional, then the administration will vehemently oppose this resolution,” she said.
Rudd said his goal is to apply the STOPP team’s approach, which only goes after the owners of large complexes, to the rest of code enforcement. But he said no matter how many staff are added, the approach is time-consuming, and not an effective way to address such a big problem.
“This doesn’t replace a mandatory inspection program,” he said. “It doesn’t even come close. It creates a distraction, if anything.”
Tenant advocates expressed their disapproval of the resolution. Local attorney Patience Milrod sent council members a letter stating the resolution ignores reality by making the enforcement dependent on tenants, creates unnecessary bureaucracy, complicates enforcement by adding more layers to the process and requiring that the person who signed the lease make the complaint and gives away public money to help landlords pursue tenants who damage their apartments.
Andy Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Faith in Community, said the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump already has left undocumented Fresno residents terrified of what comes next. “One undeniable consequence is that a continued reliance on tenant complaints is unrealistic and irresponsible,” he said.
Olivier and Brandau have vocally opposed Swearengin’s attempt to develop a program to routinely inspect the interiors of rental units in Fresno. The code enforcement task force she assembled a year ago to help craft the policy wrangled without success over cost and procedures, but she has remained steadfast about bringing a proposal to the City Council before year’s end.
Mayor-elect Lee Brand called the resolution a big step in the right direction. He said some additional changes are needed, including consolidating the municipal housing code into one section, updating the outdated software to track cases and creating a tenant education program.
Brand said the city’s whole attitude toward substandard housing has changed in the past year. Asked about Swearengin’s proposal, he said, “I’ll wait and see what she brings, but with what we have here and a few other changes, it would make a huge difference.”