The narrow escape of Roseanna Montoya and her three children from their burning central Fresno apartment Monday points again to the urgent need for city leaders to crack down on substandard housing.
Every day that City Hall’s substandard housing task force dawdles instead of forging consensus on a plan, the health and safety of Fresno families are in peril. As The Bee’s four-month investigation “Living in Misery” documented in great detail, too many Fresnans, young and old, live in conditions that breed illness and could trigger a catastrophe.
We have long subscribed to the principle that anything worth doing is worth doing right and commend the task force for considering the wide-ranging opinions and recommendations of apartment complex owners, renters, community activists and housing experts. We also appreciate the efforts of the code-enforcement “strike force” that was formed after November’s Summerset Village crisis and is targeting slumlords with histories of health and safety violations.
It appears, however, that some task force members are more interested in delaying or watering down the aggressive plan that is needed to overcome more than 130 years of city leaders looking the other way while slumlords reap profits off the poor and the vulnerable.
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The moral imperative for action is clear and undeniable, as Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Greg Terzakis, executive director of the California Apartment Association in Fresno, said after The Bee published the initial stories of “Living in Misery” in May.
“It’s very easy for many people to drive past or simply not be aware of the challenges we face” with substandard housing, Swearengin said. “The more attention that is drawn to the problems of south Fresno and the inner city, the better, and the more momentum we will find to take the steps necessary to bring solutions to bear.”
Terzakis said the association’s position is that substandard housing “is wrong legally and ethically.”
Yet the task force has yet to produce a draft inspection ordinance for Fresno City Council review. The delay stems from members debating the cost and procedures for mandatory inspections, the big question being whether all apartments should be inspected or just those that have a history of code violations and tenant complaints. We recognize that there is room for discussion about this, and we’d be comfortable with a plan that excludes recently built apartment complexes from mandatory inspections. It makes sense to target city resources where they will do the most good.
But there is no question that the city needs a landlord database. 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, told The Bee’s Barbara Anderson that such a registry is critical to improving Fresno’s rental housing.
Before the City Hall can force landlords to fix their “Third World” rentals, it needs to know what is out there and who owns it.
The fire that forced the Montoya family to flee their residence started on the bottom floor of a warehouse that had two apartment units on the second story of the back half of the building. A city spokesman earlier this week told The Bee’s Rory Appleton officials weren’t sure of the zoning for the building or if it was in violation of city ordinances.
And though many at City Hall have probably forgotten, Marcus Wesson orchestrated the murder of nine family members ranging in age from 1 to 25 in March 2004 in an office that had been illegally converted to a residence. The murders took place in the family’s quarters — a 1,070-square-foot office in the 700 block of West Hammond Avenue near Roeding Park. Code enforcement apparently did not notice or did not care that the commercial property had been switched to a home in violation of zoning rules.
It’s indisputable that Fresno has turned a blind eye to shoddy rental housing and allowed slumlords to basically do what they please without significant penalty.
Residents should not be forced to wait any longer for the task force to step up and do the right thing.