Senior code enforcement inspector Stephen Cox moved through Luis Decubas’ southeast Fresno apartment with a clipboard and camera, making note of every violation.
The water heater wasn’t strapped in correctly. The home was missing smoke detectors. Mold was growing on the bathroom ceiling.
“In case this goes to court, I need a picture of every violation,” Cox said, snapping a photo of a hole a wall that Decubas says was there when the family moved in.
City leaders made good on their promise to take action against the owner of the dilapidated southeast Fresno apartment complex that was featured in The Fresno Bee’s May investigation of substandard housing in Fresno, “Living in Misery.”
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The 35-unit complex at 2061 S. Hayston Ave. has a long, well-documented history. City inspectors have cited owners Sunny and Cecilia Chan for hundreds of violations going back to 1996. In 2013, the property was nearly designated uninhabitable.
The Decubas family was the investigation’s central example. The family pays $650 a month for a three-bedroom apartment that’s infested with cockroaches, spiders and mice. It also has exposed wires, holes in walls, faulty electric outlets and mold.
There’s no reason for that apartment complex to look like it does.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
Hayston Avenue residents such as the Decubases are far from alone. The Bee’s investigation found that thousands of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in unhealthy and unsafe apartments, despite city officials having known for decades about problems with low-income housing.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s administration is working to propose a program that would require regular interior inspections of rental units in the city.
Code inspectors on Thursday went door-to-door with a Hmong interpreter asking residents about their living conditions.
City Manager Bruce Rudd said inspectors found significant insect and rodent infestation, some units without working air conditioning, some units with water penetration, a broken washer and dryer, and a lot of broken kitchen exhaust fans.
“This is a business model that a lot of these landlords have learned: ‘If I put in just the bare minimum, I’ll get the biggest return on investment,’ ” he said. “I’m not trying to take away anyone’s ability to make a profit but not at the expense of tenants. There’s no reason for that apartment complex to look like it does.”
Rudd said code enforcement worked with the nonprofit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries to help the city gain trust of the mostly Hmong tenants. Rudd said that work was instrumental in allowing the city to speak with tenants of 32 of the 35 units.
“That is unheard of in one day,” he said. Code inspectors will visit the Chans’ other rental property, on Weber Avenue, in two weeks.
City officials told The Bee on May 13 that the city would take action on the property within two weeks. On June 10, The Bee asked why the city had not started the inspection. That day, inspectors sent the Chans a notice to inspect the property. Rudd said the delay was due to extra time it took for FIRM to talk with tenants before the city inspection.
Inside Decubas’ apartment, Cox asked him questions while walking through each room.
How’s your heater? Don’t use it.
Air conditioner? Barely works.
Any leaks on the sink? No, they fixed it.
In the living room, Cox bent down and pulled on an edge of the carpet. It lifted easily.
$50Amount Luis Decubas spends monthly on roach sprays and traps
In the kitchen, cockroaches scurried around out as Decubas opened the door to the water heater. He told Cox that in 2014, code enforcement inspectors told the owners they needed to spray repeatedly for cockroaches.
They haven’t. Decubas pays $50 a month for spray and sticky traps, but those don’t make a dent in the problem.
Decubas’ wife, Patricia Hill, said the last time code enforcement visited the property, the owners “fixed stuff halfway.” They used peel-and-stick linoleum in the bathroom, she said, which started coming up four months later.
Hill said she’s cautiously optimistic that the city inspection will cause sustained changes at the complex. “Something needs to be done.”
She’s also glad the city plans to inspect the Chans’ other properties.
“That makes me feel better because it’s not just helping my neighbors but it’s helping other families,” she said. “Because if he manages this property like that, we know he manages other properties like that.”
Cockroaches recently got into the refrigerator compressor and caused it to break. Hill said she called the Chans repeatedly for five hours last week until they agreed to bring over a new fridge.
Code enforcement manager Del Estabrooke stopped by Decubas’ apartment toward the end of the inspection. He said apartment owners should pay for maintenance that is routine and preventative.
“It appears that there’s no type of program here at all,” he said. “We’re going to try to stem that, try to help that along so that they do spend more time on maintenance.”