Fresno Mayor Lee Brand is scrambling for acceptance – if not outright support – from both an apartment owners’ group and tenant advocates as he crafts a plan to begin interior inspections of rental properties across the city as part of a crackdown on substandard housing.
Brand told The Fresno Bee’s editorial board on Wednesday that he expects to bring his proposed rental housing regulations and inspection ordinance to the Fresno City Council on Feb. 2. In the meantime, he’s still applying finishing touches with hopes of coming to the council with at least a consensus of representatives of the California Apartment Association and local advocacy groups – as well as a majority of the seven-member council.
The Bee’s four-month investigation that culminated in the special report, “Living in Misery,” published in May brought to light the plague of substandard rental housing across the city.
“This has not been an easy task because I’ve got two opposing sides,” Brand said. “From the advocates’ point of view, it’s not perfect. From the association’s point of view, it’s not perfect. But I believe it’s a workable solution. … I’ve so far come pretty close to getting both sides. My goal is by next Thursday to have both the apartment association and at least a majority of the advocates say, ‘This is not the perfect document, but this is the document that moves the city forward.’ ”
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“This is going to be one of the most ambitious things the city’s ever done,” he added. “To go out and proactively identify 85,000 to 90,000 rental properties is not going to be an easy task.”
Brand said his goal is to implement the program by September.
The program calls for creating a registry or database of every residential rental property – apartments, condominiums and single-family homes – within the city. From that registry, the city will begin rounds of baseline inspections of every rental property. Inspections of apartment complexes will be done by sampling a proportion of the units, with the sampling formula based on the size of the complex. Every single-family home will also be inspected. The inspections will cover a basic list of state health and safety standards, with several local requirements added on.
“The good properties will be obvious as we go through. The bad properties will be obvious, too,” Brand said. “Those properties that fail the inspection will automatically be referred” for enforcement under the city’s health and safety regulations that include an array of fines, penalties and orders to fix the problems.
From the advocates’ point of view, it’s not perfect. From the (apartment) association’s point of view, it’s not perfect. But I believe it’s a workable solution.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, on his proposed rental housing inspection program
Apartments and houses that pass the baseline inspection will be allowed to self-inspect and self-certify compliance with health and safety laws in subsequent years. The self-certification requires each landlord to inspect every one of their units every year and maintain records of those inspections. The city will conduct periodic audits of landlords’ self-inspection records; if they are found to be falsified, stiff fines would be imposed.
Landlords will not be charged a fee to register their properties in the database, and fees for inspections or reinspections won’t exceed $100. Newer properties will be exempt from inspections until they are 10 years old, but will still have to register in the database. Apartments that are already part of other inspection programs, including federally subsidized Section 8 housing, will be exempt from the city inspections but must file a legal affidavit certifying that they are already 100 percent inspected.
“This is the best way to identify good properties. If you are a good property owner, you’re in the self-inspection and we’re not going to focus on you,” Brand said. “This identifies the universe of deficient properties and it focuses all of the city’s resources there.”
The mayor said another component of his plan is tenant education, to ensure that renters know their rights and responsibilities.
“There are cases – there was a case where a tenant called in with a roach problem, but the roach problem is because the tenant was a very sloppy housekeeper,” he said. “The solution is to tent the building, but there are four other tenants, and the one tenant with the problem refuses to let us go in and do it.”
Under Brand’s proposal, “the landlord is not responsible for failing an inspection if it can be clearly identified as a tenant problem,” he said. “But it does not relieve the owner of the obligation to fix the problem.”
Another part of the tenant-education effort will be to encourage residents to use the city’s FresGO app, a smartphone application for reporting a wide range of problems, including code-enforcement concerns.
“We have more than 8,000 users on FresGO now, and our goal is to get to 70,000,” Brand said. “The more people who have the app, the more eyes and ears are out there in the community on these (substandard housing) issues, the better we can identify them earlier.”
Brand also plans to urge Fresno’s firefighters, police officers and other city employees to use the app to report problems when they see them.
“I want every cop out there on the beat to have this application,” he said. “If a cop goes out on a domestic disturbance call and sees the roof caved in, we want that call to come in to us.”
A third portion of Brand’s proposal expands on a measure put forth in November by Councilmen Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier and approved by the council to establish a separate section of the city’s code enforcement division with a focus specifically on health and safety problems in substandard rental housing.
“This new division is going to exclusively be rental housing,” Brand said. Six inspectors plus support staff members, including representatives from the city attorney’s office, will be tasked with pre-emptive inspection efforts, while six additional inspectors will focus on responding to reports of substandard housing and enforcement.
Landlords and tenants would receive 14 days notice ahead of any inspections – a feature that would allow property owners or managers to make needed repairs to comply with the law ahead of time.
Brand said he believes three council members are likely to oppose his proposal: Brandau, Olivier and Garry Bredefeld.
“Ideally, if the (apartment) association and the Chamber of Commerce come in with support, it will put pressure on these members,” Brand said. “I’d like to get at least five votes; I don’t want to settle for four.”
But it’s taken some pretty heavy convincing to sway the ownership interests to back Brand’s efforts.
“I think what hit them is when I said, ‘If I don’t do something now that I believe is reasonable (and) that doesn’t punish responsible landlords, then there’s going to be a ballot measure or state legislation to come down the road that’s so onerous that you’ll wish you had this version of it,’ ” he said.