There is no emergency of the moment created by a slumlord or a neglectful absentee property owner.
Immigrant residents aren’t going without heat and showers in the middle of the winter, a fire isn’t killing squatters in an abandoned house. The cameras and the reporters aren’t providing some politicians, who otherwise wouldn’t care, a platform to pretend that they are concerned about housing conditions for impoverished Fresno residents.
Thus, for some Fresno City Council members, it’s back to business as usual: Stick up for the apartment complex and rental-house owners. Do their bidding by putting the brakes on Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s attempt to create and implement an interior inspection program – something that is a benchmark practice in cities that try to do right by the poor.
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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Yet, in a July 24 story, The Bee’s Barbara Anderson reported that a substandard housing task force assembled eight months ago continues to wrangle over the cost and procedures for mandatory inspections. Property owners on the task force, for example, question who should pay for the inspections. Councilman Steve Brandau advocates for apartment owners doing self-inspections or inspecting an unspecified percentage of rentals.
There should be no question about who pays for inspections. It is the owners’ responsibility. They, in turn, will pass the costs on to their tenants. If, for example, an inspection costs $100, that would result in an $8.33 monthly rent increase over a year. Landlords being landlords, they will raise the rent $10 or $15 month – a bargain for a family that doesn’t want to live in a place with wiring problems, broken coolers and heaters, leaky plumbing, rodents, insects and mold.
Let’s not kid anyone. Inspection costs do not concern Fresno rental owners. But they do fear what an interior inspection will uncover: in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in deferred – or never performed – maintenance.
A reasonable person might think that all landlords would maintain their properties and protect their investment. But Fresno slumlords long have been allowed by City Hall to use a business model that allows them to prey on poor families and inflate their profits by maintaining and fixing nothing.
Councilman Clint Olivier, meanwhile, says that it doesn’t make sense to create a new inspection program without first having a budget for it. Olivier is wrong. First, you decide what the inspection program looks like, and then you budget for its implementation. In Fresno’s case, the funding, as we already have explained, would come from property owners who pass the costs on to tenants.
The city has hired a consultant, Alan Mallach, to advise on the effort to upgrade Fresno rentals. Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a national organization concerned with substandard housing and its harmful effects on cities. Mallach knows his stuff and everyone on the task force would be wise to heed – or at least keep an open mind about – his recommendations.
According to Swearengin, who terms out in five months, Fresno could have an apartment registry by next year, a baseline of inspections completed in 2018 and be ready to pursue slumlords with code enforcement actions in 2019.
There’s no good reason why that timeline cannot be met.