Fresno’s leaders no longer can ignore the city’s substandard housing crisis, community activists and apartment industry executives said Monday.
The extent of slum housing, detailed in a Fresno Bee investigative report called “Living in Misery,” should wake up the community, said Sergio Cortes of No More Slumlords, a volunteer advocacy group.
“This is our Flint, Michigan,” Cortes said. “Instead of a water crisis, this is Fresno’s housing crisis.”
Substandard housing is a systemic problem in the city, he said, and to address it Fresno residents need to become engaged with this issue.
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Mayor Ashley Swearengin said The Bee’s report illustrates for the public the magnitude of the problem.
“It’s very easy for many people to drive past or simply not be aware of the challenges we face” with substandard housing, Swearengin said Monday. “The more attention that is drawn to the problems of south Fresno and the inner city, the better, and the more momentum we will find to take the steps necessary to bring solutions to bear.”
Swearengin emphasized the work a code enforcement task force is doing to develop a program for interior inspections of rental units. “We want it to be fair. We want it to be effective,” she said. “We want to get the implementation right.”
That is going to require a program that balances the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and their tenants. “If you’re on the landlord’s side of this, the tenants play a huge role in the deterioration of their property,” Swearengin said. “If you’re on the tenant advocate side, you hear about how the landlords have dropped the ball. Both are important moving forward … and I think we’re finding good balance in the task force meetings.”
But, she added, “I think the hardest part (of implementing interior inspections) is having too few resources to proactively address the problems we’re going to find and that will be reported.”
This is our Flint, Michigan.
Sergio Cortes, No More Slumlords
Greg Terzakis, executive director of the California Apartment Association in Fresno, said the association’s position is that substandard housing “is wrong legally and ethically.”
He said the association supports the idea of “professionally managed properties being allowed to self-inspect and provide that data to the city.” A small percentage of the self-inspected units could be audited by the city to ensure compliance, he said.
But advocates for tenants said The Bee’s investigation confirmed the depth of the substandard housing crisis and the need for a proactive, interior inspection program. “It really forces a very high bar for a program this year that inspects every single rental unit in the city,” said Andy Levine, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Faith in Communities.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd said new strategies being put into place to address substandard housing will pay off. He cited recent changes to the city’s ordinance to require hearing officers to compel property owners to make repairs, and not just levy fines.
Rudd said he plans to ask the City Council to equate fines with the severity of conditions found by inspectors. Currently, a first violation of a bad roof causing a health hazard from mold or other conditions carries the same fine as for tall weeds in a yard, Rudd said. “That makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Substandard housing has “been 40 years in the making, but we’re going to fix this, and fix this before the mayor is out of office,” he said, referring to the end of this year, when Swearengin’s term ends.
Increased public awareness and having newer, tougher practices will make it difficult politically for future mayoral administrations and city councils to reverse course, Rudd said. “There’s no turning back.”
Levine, however, said advocates for Fresno tenants have doubts about progress continuing. “There’s no real way we can be confident knowing of all the broken promises and false proclamations that your story made clear have been made through the past decades.”
Swearengin noted a reference in The Bee’s report documenting that issues of substandard housing date to at least 1949, “and it’s a problem that we’re still talking about 65 years later.”
“We’re trying to play catch-up on years of land-use decisions, education, all the things that have led to Fresno having a high concentration of poverty,” she added. “The city, community partners and the entire community has to remain committed to seeing this through. We have to do more than get a policy passed, but also make sure it’s implemented.”
And Swearengin cautioned that there won’t be any such thing as a quick fix. “I think there’s another 20 years of really hard work ahead,” she said.
Substandard housing has been 40 years in the making, but we’re going to fix this.
Bruce Rudd, Fresno city manager
The mayor said her administration’s multiple focuses on fiscal policy, land use, code enforcement and other issues “is all done with an eye toward being a sustained solution and not just a flash in the pan.” The city’s new general plan, for example, “is something that cannot easily be undone.”
Terzakis said “substandard housing is unacceptable” and the apartment association “supports what the administration is doing.”
Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier’s District 7 covers much of central Fresno and includes three of the apartment complexes noted in The Bee’s report. Among them is Summerset Village, where broken gas lines left residents without hot water or heat for several weeks during a cold snap late last year. The plight of residents there became a focal point of public attention and helped trigger the city’s renewed efforts to improve its response to substandard housing.
“We’re at a point in the history of Fresno where we have a convergence of different groups,” Olivier said Monday. “It’s happening now, and the question is what are we going to do about it.”
Olivier said the city’s efforts will have to overcome fear that some residents may have of retaliation or eviction for reporting problems with their apartments, or of deportation for those who are undocumented. And there are also decades of skepticism and mistrust of government.
When he and volunteers visited Summerset Village late last year to deliver and install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for residents’ safety, “you would think they would be so happy and grateful,” Olivier said. But when they knocked on doors to offer the free equipment, “we were denied entry by 40 or 50 percent of those tenants.”
That, he said, is why the city’s inspection and enforcement efforts need to be “strategic and surgical” rather than a broad-brush approach. “I’ve tried to caution the task force that they need to think in terms of reality,” Olivier said. “Maybe the activists aren’t going to get what they want. Maybe the industry isn’t going to get what they want.
“But I think in the end, perhaps if we all work together, we’ll be able to be a whole lot closer to solving this problem than we have been for decades,” Olivier added. “That’s my hope.”
Wayne Fox, director of Fresno County’s environmental health division, said it can be difficult and take time to work with property owners and tenants on housing conditions. The county is responsible for substandard housing issues in unincorporated areas. “It comes down to being able to enforce the existing rules and codes that we have,” he said.
The question is what are we going to do about it.
City Councilman Clint Olivier
Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority, said the authority’s board meets in two weeks and he plans to discuss recommendations for addressing substandard housing that were outlined by The Bee in an editorial Sunday.
The Bee recommended: annual interior inspections of apartment complexes and houses with a history of problems; hire a legal consultant who knows how to navigate California law and can suggest strategies or local legislation that will force slumlords to provide safe and healthy housing – or get out of the rental business; and overhaul and beef up staffing in code enforcement.
“I feel strongly that this is really a community-wide issue, and I think your article is going to be catalytic in terms of forcing a community conversation, and we at the Housing Authority want to be there,” Prince said.