A four-month investigation by The Fresno Bee documents in graphic detail shocking conditions in Fresno rental units – apartments and houses inhabited by thousands of people.
“Lucky” families might only have to deal with broken heaters, leaky showers and faulty electrical outlets. Others are fighting a perpetual war to stay healthy against an invasion of rats, mice and cockroaches.
Even more disgusting: City Hall officials have served as lieutenants in the army of slumlords preying on Fresno’s poorest residents.
As Bee reporters Andrea Castillo, Barbara Anderson and BoNhia Lee, and photographers Silvia Flores and John Walker revealed in their “Living in Misery” investigation published Sunday, city leaders long have failed to address these very real health and safety issues despite knowing about them.
The reasons for City Hall’s failure to stand up for Fresno’s most vulnerable people can be attributed to indifference, incompetence, insufficient budgets or simply not knowing how to rein in landlords who fail to properly maintain their properties.
But after Mayor Ashley Swearengin was forced to declare a state of emergency at Summerset Village Apartments last November and The Bee’s revelations about Fresno’s substandard housing crisis, there can be no more excuses for failing to act.
This effort should focus city resources – which we recognize are limited – to benefit the greatest number of residents. These are our recommendations:
▪ Require annual interior inspections of apartment complexes and houses with a history of problems. Many rental-unit owners and managers maintain their properties quite well. It is a drain of time and money to require annual inspections of properties that are recently built or have no history of failing to make repairs.
That said, the list of units requiring annual inspections should be much larger than the 13 apartment complexes on the radar of City Manager Bruce Rudd’s “strike force” code enforcement team.
▪ Hire a legal consultant who knows how to navigate California law and can suggest strategies or even local legislation that will force slumlords to provide safe and healthy housing – or get out of the rental business.
▪ Overhaul and beef up staffing in code enforcement. Officers in this department should be properly trained so that when cases involving housing violations go to a hearing officer, the city’s allegations are sustained.
As reported in The Bee’s investigation, among 106 administrative housing citation cases from late 2013 through February of this year, “76 were either reduced, dismissed or had no action taken.” The reason? Fresno hearing officer Ed Johnson said that often there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support the citation or the property owner didn’t receive the notice.
▪ Aggressively utilize an ordinance passed in December designed to improve properties with serious violations. Under this process, a court-appointed receiver would take control of the property and make repairs. The receiver would recover his costs through liens or sale of the property and even other assets held by the owner.
Use this valuable tool just a couple of times, and word will get around: Fix it or lose it.
Tenants rights groups and community organizers who have pushed City Hall for years to confront miserable housing conditions should redouble efforts to educate residents about their rights and responsibilities as renters.
For example, removal of smoke detectors (or their batteries) by renters is cited by property owners as a constant problem and expense. Moreover, in the event of fire, the absence of a working smoke detector can result in death.
Renters also have a responsibility to keep their units clean. Unsanitary conditions beckon vermin and insects.
Most of all, immigrant families must be educated that it is the American way to speak up. When good people remain silent about unhealthy and unsafe living quarters because they fear reprisal, nothing will be done, and the slumlord is free to prey on others.
This point was made by Jose Lopez, a 22-year-old resident who has lived with his parents for 10 years in the Lowell neighborhood just north of downtown.
Their apartment “had cockroaches, rats, cracks in the bathtub and mold. The water heater would shut off every now and then. The heater never worked,” wrote Castillo, Anderson and Lee.
“His farmworker parents didn’t complain – they knew something was wrong, but they feared retaliation.”
Then Lopez spoke up at a community meeting; his complaints were heard and acted upon.
Another powerful tool is a smartphone. A digital photo of mice, such as the one taken by Gon Nanthadeth in the Summerset Village Apartments, is powerful evidence of unhealthy conditions there.
It’s the kind of evidence that is difficult, if not impossible, for a property owner to explain away. Evidence, too, that code enforcement can’t ignore.
The widespread problem of substandard housing in Fresno now has been documented by public records, tenant interviews, videos, pictures and dogged reporting.
No more excuse or delays, City Hall.