The Fresno City Council gave its initial approval Thursday to proposed changes to ordinances dealing with neighborhood nuisances and blight, unanimously adopting suggestions by Councilman Oliver Baines that clarify the intent of the law and ease the fears of tenants-rights advocates.
Baines’ revisions came after Faith in Community – a diverse coalition of local Fresno religious congregations – and the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to the City Council expressing concern that the law allows landlords to make tenants scapegoats for unsafe living conditions for which they say property owners should be held legally responsible. They also suggested that vague language in the ordinance could create “overly intrusive and discriminatory enforcement” against tenants.
Fresno Building Healthy Communities, another advocacy organization, sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Justice asking the federal agency to intervene. “The ordinance unfairly targets low-income people of color living in unhealthy conditions due to the documented shortage of healthy and affordable housing in the city,” the nonprofit said in its letter.
The original version of the ordinance amendment, which received preliminary approval from the Fresno City Council on April 28, added tenants or occupants of a property to the list of “responsible parties” who could be penalized for chronic nuisances or blight.
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In a memo to the council, City Attorney Douglas Sloan sought to allay fears that the amendments could inadvertently harm tenants. “City officials and the public can be assured (that) this office … would never permit the ordinance to be abused to prosecute tenants when nuisance behaviors are occurring that are beyond their control, or when responsibility lies with the owner,” Sloan wrote. “That is not the intent of the ordinance or the policy of this office.”
Tenant advocates were unconvinced.
“We believe you would not intend these kinds of deeply inequitable impacts on some of your most vulnerable residents,” the Faith in Community leadership said in its letter to the council. “We therefore strongly urge you to reconsider the wisdom of this action and, at the very least, allow for a comprehensive Code Enforcement Task Force and community-based discussion and vetting before you make a final decision on this ordinance.”
The city’s current ordinance holds property owners accountable; it also requires tenants and occupants to comply with all laws, to supervise anyone using or occupying the property, and to maintain the property so it doesn’t become a nuisance or blight. But it does not hold tenants or occupants responsible for penalties under the ordinance.
The ordinance has always included tenants. In my 12 years as a police officer, nine of those years I used this ordinance very effectively to deal with nuisance homes and neighborhoods. It is a very effective tool.
Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines
“The ordinance has always included tenants,” said Baines. “In my 12 years as a police officer, nine of those years I used this ordinance very effectively to deal with nuisance homes and neighborhoods. It is a very effective tool.”
The amendments, even after tinkering by Baines, would make property managers, condominium owners associations and occupants or lessees of property subject to penalties for nuisance issues on property under their care or occupation. The amendments also expand the types of disruptive activities, disturbances and criminal behavior that would qualify as chronic nuisances because of repeated calls for police service.
The controversy flared in the wake of a four-month investigation and special report by The Bee into citywide instances of squalid living conditions endured by many of Fresno’s lowest-income residents in substandard rental homes and apartments. The report also documented the city’s struggles to deal with the crisis.
Three weeks ago, the city passed an urgency ordinance beefing up the authority of its code-enforcement hearing officers to order immediate repairs by landlords where code violations are discovered and to double the fines of owners who drag their feet. The city has a Code Enforcement Task Force crafting a program for periodic interior inspections of apartments and rental housing by the city. Such inspections would check for unsafe or unsound building conditions, infestations by insects or vermin and other code violations and mandate repairs.
Baines took pains Thursday to draw a distinction about the purpose of the ordinance. “This is not an ordinance that deals with any of our interior standards,” he said. “The idea of this particular policy is and has always been to deal with nuisance behaviors in neighborhoods by residents.
“In the effort to preserve rights, we also have to remember that people who live in neighborhoods with bad actors want this kind of protection,” he added. “We must ensure that they have it. … Tenants have always been a part of that.”
Baines also acknowledged the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the earlier version of the changes. “I’m clarifying the intent,” he said. “The way it was proposed initially, the intent was not clear (and) very few people understood what this was about.”
Baines proposed adding language that declares the ordinance won’t “replace or supersede the routine interior inspection by which the city enforces state and local standards of habitability for rental housing.” That was a chief concern of tenant advocates who feared the ordinance would let landlords of slum properties off the hook for failing to maintain their rental units and shift blame to tenants for shoddy housing conditions.
Baines’ changes also enable the city’s code-enforcement hearing officers to assess responsibility for fees and fines proportionally among the responsible parties, depending on evidence showing where the bulk of the blame lies for chronic nuisances at a given property.
The council’s unanimous support of Baines’ efforts drew praise from Patience Milrod, a Fresno attorney and social justice advocate, and Andy Levine of Faith in Community.
The council drew a very clear, firm line.
Patience Milrod, Fresno attorney and social justice advocate
“The council drew a very clear, firm line between code enforcement, interior inspection, code enforcement with respect to habitability, and code enforcement with respect to nuisances,” Milrod said. “So essentially the nuisance enforcement is going to be the job of law enforcement, and code enforcement officers can continue to focus on the really serious, severe interior habitability problems that have been festering for all these decades.”
Levine said the confusion cited by Baines was the result of unclear language in the original proposal for amending the ordinance. “Nobody’s intentionally confused. That’s coming from real lack of clarity in the language of the document. The staff report itself said that tenants were being added as ‘responsible parties,’ ” Levine said.
“If this is going to enforce the laws against those who are breaking the laws, that’s something we all support,” he added. “But if there’s any unintended risk of this unduly penalizing people who shouldn’t be caught up … we do have some real concerns of unintended consequences.”
Before the ordinance comes back for final approval – perhaps as early as next week – Baines pledged to work with Councilman Lee Brand to address concerns Brand has over penalties that property managers and condo homeowners associations would face under the amended law for the actions of tenants.
Brand said that rental property managers’ hands are often tied by owners who are ultimately responsible for decisions about who is chosen as tenants or for paying expenses to maintain properties. In condo communities, where each unit has an individual owner making decisions on who to lease their unit to, Baines noted that homeowner associations only maintain the common areas and not the individual units. “It’s not fair to penalize homeowner associations for matters over which they have no control,” he said.