Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin wants the city to be inspecting the interiors of apartments within two years so landlords can be put on notice to fix structures that are unsafe and unhealthy for housing residents.
But the clock is ticking for the lame-duck mayor.
With five months remaining in her term, Swearengin has yet to produce a draft inspection ordinance for City Council review.
A four-month investigation earlier this year by The Bee found many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. And advocates for low-income tenants said the city’s lack of an interior inspection program had allowed slumlords to operate.
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The mayor has vowed to correct that before she leaves office.
But a substandard housing task force Swearengin assembled eight months ago to help craft a policy continues to wrangle over the cost and procedures for mandatory inspections.
And on Thursday an outside housing expert told the mayor and the task force that they could be forgetting a first step.
Fresno may have 50,000 to 60,000 landlords – but right now, no one knows for sure. Building a landlord database is key to a plan to improve the quality of rental housing in the city, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a national organization that focuses on vacant and substandard housing and its effects on cities.
The issue will be how do you move expeditiously on this.
Alan Mallach, housing consultant
An apartment registry is not difficult to create, but it could take months or up to a year to build using tax assessor records, Mallach said.
Creating a system for inspecting apartments on a registry list doesn’t have to take a lot of time, Mallach said. The city could create a health and safety checklist for inspectors, which can speed up inspections so that more properties in the city could be inspected within about a year’s time.
It’s not good to take too many years to complete a baseline inspection of apartment properties in a city, he said. Owners of the first properties inspected begin to complain that they were singled out for inspections.
“The issue will be how do you move expeditiously on this,” Mallach said.
Mallach is a proponent of a “performance-based interior inspection program,” which rewards good landlords for maintaining safe and healthy housing.
“Landlords are not the enemy,” he said. “They provide a valuable service to every community.” Cities can set up inspection programs that are fair and reward responsible landlords while focusing enforcement resources on bad landlords, he said.
City spokesman Mark Standriff said Fresno has a contract, which is not fully executed yet, with the Center for Community Progress. Mallach is being paid $200 an hour to be a consultant to the city.
Swearengin said Thursday after Mallach’s presentation to the task force that it wouldn’t be out of the question for the city to have an apartment registry by 2017, a baseline inspection of apartments completed in 2018 and be ready to go after bad landlords with code enforcement actions in 2019.
The city already has a system for going after properties that have repeated code violations, calls for police and fire and other unsafe conditions.
City Manager Bruce Rudd told the mayor and task force that the code enforcement strike team he created has made progress against owners of substandard apartments, but the work has been slower and more laborious than anticipated.
On Friday, Rudd said a landlord that the city took to court now is fixing 15 units that have decaying roofs and myriad other problems. Owners and managers of other apartment complexes on the strike team’s “hit list” are also making needed repairs, he said.
But some landlords know how to slow down code enforcement actions, Rudd said. And to fight them will take more attorneys to prepare legal cases.
Rudd said the mayor is on board, and the city has budgeted an additional $300,000 to the effort. Taking on bad landlords is “one of our top priorities, and we’re not going to let go of it,” he said.
Task force skeptical
Task force members Thursday agreed the city has a substandard housing problem that it has to address, but that is where the consensus appeared to end.
City Councilman Clint Olivier fired questions at Mallach and the mayor about the cost of a baseline inspection of thousands of apartment properties in the city.
At $100 per unit, Olivier estimated inspections could cost the city millions of dollars.
Property owners on the task force questioned who would pay for the inspections.
Swearengin said Mallach had provided information that showed a baseline inspection could be done at a reasonable cost.
The city has information to move forward, she said. “Drafting a policy is going to be the easy part.” As for a budget and other details for implementing the plan, that will be more difficult, she said.
On Friday, Olivier said it makes no sense to create a new city inspection program without first having a budget for it.
Councilman Steve Brandau, who attended the Thursday task force meeting, said he has concerns about the cost of inspections and is not convinced the city should have mandatory inspections of every apartment unit.
“I just think there’s other options available to us,” he said. The city could consider inspecting a percentage of apartments, he said, or allow self-inspections by apartment owners.
Both Olivier and Brandau also questioned how willing tenants would be to open their doors to city inspectors and whether the city should demand they do so.
Drafting a policy is going to be the easy part.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
Brandau said he expects the mayor will deliver an inspection ordinance to the council before the end of the year, but “it’ll be a rush job. It’ll be unvetted and it will be full of errors.”
Kenneth Hendrix, a property manager, said the mayor doesn’t need an OK from her advisory task force to draft an ordinance. “We don’t have to come to consensus.”
Advocates for low-income tenants said the city pays a cost now for substandard housing in the form of lowered property values and effects on the quality of life.
Janine Nkosi, a sociology professor at Fresno State and member of the task force, reminded the group that it came together in reaction to the tragedy at Summerset Village, where more than 1,000 tenants in the central Fresno apartment complex were left without heat for a month last fall. Tenants are suing the property owner, and one family is claiming the loss of heat led to a man’s death.
“There’s a human cost that brought us all here,” Nkosi said.
Andy Levine, executive director of Faith in Community, said tenants want inspections and the task force has spent six months looking at programs that are working in California cities. Now, it has consultant Mallach’s advice for guidance.
“We’re feeling like there’s a very clear path forward here,” he said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t pass an interior inspection program in the next few months.”
Patience Milrod, a Fresno attorney hired this month to work with the city manager’s code enforcement strike team, said at the task force meeting that she hoped the “consensus is that we do have to get a hand on the quality of housing.” To identify substandard housing in the city will cost money, Milrod said. “We just have to figure out who’s going to pay for it.”
In a strange twist, the city terminated Milrod’s contract – she no longer worked for the city as of Friday.
Asked what tasks Milrod would be performing for the code enforcement strike team, Rudd said Friday afternoon that she no longer was part of the effort. He referred questions to City Attorney Douglas Sloan. He did not return a call Friday.
Milrod said she was not clear why her contract was terminated. She reported to the city attorney, she said. “I didn’t have any personal problem with Doug, so I’m assuming it’s a council issue.”
Council President Paul Caprioglio, reached on vacation out of state, said he had not heard about Milrod’s termination. Olivier said he was unfamiliar with it. Brandau could not be reached Friday afternoon to comment on Milrod’s status with the city.
Rudd said the strike team’s work will continue. “By the time I get done with this, it will be highly effective and efficient and can sustain itself over the long haul.”