When the Fresno City Council delayed a vote on the long-discussed rental housing inspection plan in December, Lee Brand said he would bring a much-improved proposal to the council for the Feb. 2 meeting.
The new Fresno mayor has met that goal. We believe that his plan will substantially reduce the number of substandard units and provide more Fresno residents with the opportunity to live in safe, healthy and affordable housing.
Under Brand’s proposal, slumlords who prey on impoverished and vulnerable residents will have to fix their problem units in a reasonable amount of time. Property owners who fail to meet the standards set by the city would face real consequences that include fines, civil injunctions and, in the most serious cases, criminal prosecution.
If adopted, this plan will end the nod-and-wink acceptance of substandard housing by Fresno officials that has gone on for more than a century.
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Brand said that elements of the plan are based on ordinances and policies successfully used by the city of Sacramento to reduce the substandard rental housing stock there.
Other elements reflect Brand’s 38 years’ experience as a property manager and rental owner prior to his election as mayor in November and input from tenant advocates, property owners, housing experts and council members.
“This has not been an easy task because I’ve got two opposing sides,” Brand told The Bee editorial board in a meeting Wednesday. “From the advocates’ point of view, it’s not perfect. From the association’s point of view, it’s not perfect. But I believe it’s a workable solution.”
This is how the program would work:
▪ Every residential rental property – apartments, condominiums and single-family homes – within the city will be registered. The city estimates that there are 85,000 to 90,000 rentals in Fresno.
▪ From that registry, the city will begin baseline inspections. Apartment complexes will be done by sampling a proportion of the units, with the sampling formula based on the size of the complex.
▪ When the apartment inspections are completed over about two years’ time, the city then will inspect house rentals.
▪ All inspections will cover a basic list of state health and safety standards, with several local requirements added on. The list that Brand provided Wednesday was simple, easy to understand and fit on a single page.
▪ Apartments and houses that pass inspection will be allowed to self-inspect and self-certify compliance with health and safety laws in subsequent years. The city will conduct periodic audits of landlords’ self-inspection records; if they are found to be falsified, stiff fines would be imposed.
▪ Landlords will not be charged to register their properties and inspection fees won’t exceed $100. Newer units will be exempt from inspections until they are 10 years old.
▪ Apartments that are part of other inspection programs, including Section 8 housing, will be exempt from the city inspections but landlords must certify that they are already 100 percent inspected.
▪ The program includes tenant education. In addition, landlords will not fail inspections if the problem clearly was caused by the tenant.
▪ Residents will be encouraged to use the city’s FresGO app, a smartphone application for reporting a wide range of problems, including code-enforcement concerns.
Brand said that the plan “is the best way to identify good properties. If you are a good property owner, you’re in the self-inspection and we’re not going to focus on you.”
Conversely, the plan will identify substandard properties and concentrate city resources there – resulting in a better Fresno, especially for renters living in slum conditions and for people living in nearby properties.
To ensure that the program works as intended, Brand said that the city will hire six additional code enforcement officers to perform inspections and add lawyers or retain outside counsel to prosecute violators.
We encourage the council to adopt this proposal by a unanimous vote at Thursday’s meeting. It reflects much hard work by Brand, former Mayor Ashley Swearengin, advocates for both tenants and property owners, and other community members.
Stalling the vote yet again or doing nothing is unacceptable. The Bee’s 2016 “Living in Misery” investigation and numerous follow-up stories have documented the depth and breadth of the problem. The council should not wait for a major tragedy like multiple deaths to shame it into action and embarrass the city internationally.
As Brand said, “We have to do something from a moral standpoint.”