Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau believes irresponsible tenants create the vast majority of the city’s problems with substandard housing.
The Fresno Bee’s investigation, “Living in Misery,” found many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions.
Brandau said during an interview on KMJ radio Tuesday that, by some estimates, “slumlords” are responsible for 10 to 25 percent of the issues at apartment complexes around the city. Further, he said, substandard housing is not as big a problem as the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
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That was in response to a quote by Sergio Cortes of the tenant advocacy group No More Slumlords in a story following The Bee’s investigation. Cortes said, “Instead of a water crisis, this is Fresno’s housing crisis.”
Brandau sees it differently. That overwhelming problem, he told radio host John Broeske, is “slum tenants,” and suggested such tenants could represent 75 percent of the problem.
“We need a four-month investigation on slum tenants,” he said.
During an interview Wednesday, Brandau softened his stance, saying the problem is comprehensive and won’t go away if only the landlords are addressed. Some of the burden must also be put on tenants, he said.
Brandau said substandard housing is a symptom of poverty and that the city has tried to address it.
“I don’t want the conversation to be that the city of Fresno is like Flint, Michigan, being fully aware of the problem and doing nothing to address it,” he said.
Brandau admitted that the exact ratio of tenant- vs. landlord-caused problems is not known but said government makes projections like that all the time.
A code enforcement task force is developing a routine interior-inspection program for apartments. Part of its goal is to figure out just how many substandard units exist in Fresno.
City Councilman Oliver Baines said tenants share some responsibility for Fresno’s substandard housing crisis. But he says no one should state definitively that most substandard housing is the fault of tenants.
Baines also said the city has more to do to address substandard housing conditions. “We have a long ways to go to getting it fully resolved,” he said. “There’s going to be a long fight. This is the beginning, not the middle or the end.”
Brandau acknowledged on the KMJ show that the problem is a “heavy lift.” He said city officials have been doing all they can to address housing issues.
But he said it’s not the city’s job to make sure residences are free of vermin, such as cockroaches or mice, calling any attempt to eradicate those problems “a fool’s errand with taxpayer money.”
“It’s our job to make sure that at our properties in Fresno, we don’t have roofs caving in, we don’t have mold growth, we don’t have bad electrical problems,” he said. “That’s infrastructural type stuff.”
California law states that rental units may be considered unlivable if they contain nuisances that endanger health and safety, such as rodents and vermin. Bugs and rodents are associated with health issues including asthma, skin rashes, viruses and ear infections.
Fresno spokesman Mark Standriff said one of code enforcement’s tasks is to cite landlords for vermin issues.
Brandau said Wednesday that vermin can’t be addressed solely by the city. He said cooperation among the city, landlord and tenant are necessary to get rid of problems like cockroaches, and that conditions like mold and broken gas lines should be prioritized.
On KMJ, Brandau also said some residents choose not to report their living conditions, not out of fear, but because they don’t want authorities to see other things. He cited meth labs, marijuana-growing operations, overcrowding, tenants not on the lease, children without beds or “the filth they create themselves.”
During the interview Wednesday, Brandau said negligent property owners are part of the problem, but other components – namely tenant responsibility – must be addressed.
“I’m a carpet cleaner long before I’m a city councilman,” he said. “And I see a lot of this stuff firsthand.”
Staff writer Barbara Anderson contributed to this report.