An appeal of fines levied against the owner of Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno is in the hands of an administrative hearing officer, nearly a year after 1,000 residents went without heat or hot water for several weeks.
The Fresno City Council chamber was packed Monday for the appeal hearing, with residents from the apartments holding signs in a demonstration over the conditions they endured. One sign read “Don’t forget what we suffered.”
Few property owners in Fresno who are fined for housing violations choose to appeal, but Marin County resident Chris Henry appealed the $290,000 in fines that he owes the city. Henry is a Kern County oil company owner and restaurateur in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara.
Henry’s attorney, Stephanie Borchers of Fresno, said the hearing was “not to fight violation by violation.” The city issued 1,450 code violations at the 220-unit complex.
Borchers said Henry spent $1.6 million on repairs and renovations to the property. And she called Brad Hardie, president of Regency Property Management, to testify that Henry had a verbal agreement with the city to waive fines.
Hardy, who was hired by Henry to oversee repairs at Summerset, said his boss agreed to stucco, instead of just paint the outside of the buildings, with the understanding that the city would allow him to put the money from fines into repairs to the Summerset property.
Borchers said Henry acted on the assumption the fines would be waived. “Because the city was willing to waive these fines, that property has been tremendously improved,” she said.
Henry first submitted a notice of appeal on Dec. 16 for money that was due the city on Jan. 6. A hearing date was set for soon after that, but the city and Henry requested to hold off.
The city had agreed to postponements in the appeals hearing to give time for repairs to be finished at Summerset, but the city is contesting that it agreed to waive fines.
Deputy City Attorney Chad Snyder said the city manager can waive up to $100,000 in fines, but only if it provides incentives for a new owner of a property to fix problems. Any agreement beyond that would have to be a written contract and the City Council would have to vote to approve the waiver, he said. “The City Council has never agreed to waive fines in this case,” Snyder said.
I just want justice.
Hana Yang, Summerset Village resident
Administrative hearing officer Michael Flores asked both sides to submit written summaries of their arguments for his consideration. He also will make a decision about 126 disputed violations, such as missing window screens, cracked windows, exterior termite damage, that were written against Summerset. The city deemed the violations were of “immediate danger,” a determination that requires repairs to be done right away. Henry disagrees.
The crisis at Summerset spurred Mayor Ashley Swearengin to declare a state of emergency while crews worked to restore services to the low-income residents, many of whom are Southeast Asian refugees.
During a break in the hearing Monday morning, Summerset residents said Henry should pay the fine. “I just want justice,” said Hana Yang, 64. “It’s not like we live there for free. I pay $650,” she said through Pahoua Lor, a Fresno attorney who is representing Yang and about 150 current and former tenants in a lawsuit against Henry. The lawsuit seeks $3 million for the residents.
The lawsuit was amended in March to include a wrongful death claim on behalf of the family of Her Xa Lor, 78, who died Jan. 2 of respiratory failure and pneumonia. Tong Cha alleges her husband became ill after the Nov. 12 shutoff of natural gas at the apartment complex. Lor died Jan. 2 at Saint Agnes Medical Center of respiratory failure caused by pneumonia, according to his death certificate.
Monday, Cha was at the appeals hearing. “I want to to hear what’s going on,” she said through a Hmong interpreter.
The appeals hearing may not settle the issue between Henry and the city. Landlords can appeal the administrative hearing officer’s decision within 90 days to the Fresno County Superior Court.