A highly anticipated proposal by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin for the city to begin interior inspections of apartment units has been delayed for two months.
The Fresno City Council had been scheduled to discuss the plan – part of the mayor’s plan to tackle problems of substandard rental housing in the city – at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. But Councilman Steve Brandau asked that the issue be removed from the agenda, and none of the other council members objected.
The proposed ordinance included an annual rental property registry, a three-year inspection cycle and an opportunity for self-certification. Registration and inspection fees had not been determined. Properties that complied could receive a business tax rebate.
Assistant City Manager Renena Smith said that members of the public were planning to attend and address the council; Brandau said he was aware of that. The City Council then voted 6-0 to approve the revised agenda.
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A few moments later, Councilman Lee Brand – who will succeed Swearengin as mayor in early January – asked that the inspection proposal be scheduled for Feb. 2, a request to which Brandau and other council members agreed.
Swearengin said she’s not surprised that the discussion was delayed, though she understands how people could see it as a big setback. She said the proposal is about 80 percent worked through, but it will be up to Brand’s administration to come to a compromise with landlord and tenant advocates about the cycle of inspections and how a baseline is handled.
“I’m very confident that mayor-elect Brand will follow through on what he said today,” she said. “He’ll bring it back, and when he brings it back it’ll be something he’ll be prepared to support, and I think the council majority will be as well.
“If I didn’t see progress, I would definitely be frustrated at this point.”
A routine inspection program would monitor and ensure that state health and safety standards are met. Under the mayor’s plan, a random number of rental properties would be inspected throughout the year. Landlords who met certain requirements could apply for self-certification. A random 10 percent of self-certified properties would be inspected each year.
To me it’s important that it actually get done, whether it’s on my watch or Mayor Brand’s watch.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who leaves office next month
Properties that passed the first inspection, or a re-inspection, would not be reviewed for another three years. Those that failed two consecutive checks would be checked annually for the next three years.
Swearengin’s administration has spent more than a year taking input from landlord and tenant advocates, studying inspection programs in other cities and consulting with national experts. The city has looked for ways to hold landlords accountable for rental units that are unsafe and unhealthy since November 2015, when 1,000 low-income tenants at Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno went without heat and hot water for weeks. A program established in January and expanded last month dedicates code enforcement officers and city attorneys to go after the most egregious properties.
In May, The Bee highlighted Fresno’s problems of substandard housing in a special report called “Living in Misery.” It found that units all over the city are unlivable while landlords go without penalty due to the city’s lack of oversight.
Swearengin said that in the 10 days since she released her proposal, Brand has almost exclusively worked to achieve a compromise with representatives from both sides of the issue. She said they considered having the discussion on Thursday, a first vote on Dec. 15 and a special meeting on Dec. 20, but realized the calendar was too full and some people had already planned holiday travel for that time.
“To me it’s important that it actually get done,” she said, “whether it’s on my watch or Mayor Brand’s watch.”
More than 20 people, including tenants and tenant advocates, spoke in favor of putting the inspection ordinance back on the agenda, while two property owners spoke in favor of the postponement.
Richard Ginder, a real estate developer who runs Ginder Development Corp., said the real problem is a severe lack of affordable housing in Fresno. He said 35 percent of his building costs are because of regulations and it already takes too long to secure building permits.
“I am not a slumlord,” he said. “I agree that there’s a huge problem with substandard housing. It’s not going to be fixed by inspecting my apartments.”
Steve Hrdlicka, an attorney who represents landlords, said many others who planned to speak left by the time the public comment period started because the ordinance had been postponed.
Hrdlicka was on the mayor’s code enforcement task force, which spent more than a year debating the makings of a good routine inspection plan. He said the ordinance was presented at the last minute, without enough time to think it through, and Feb. 2 isn’t that far away.
“A good ordinance can be written, but I think it would be a huge mistake to pass it as it is set up right now with a tremendous amount of loopholes, a tremendous amount of burden on innocent people,” he said.
Others disagreed. Many said the council chose to represent the interests of wealthy landlords by once again ignoring those whose living conditions are inhumane. They pleaded with the council to act. Some said it was offensive for Brandau to ask to remove the ordinance from the agenda and then leave before public testimony. Council president Paul Caprioglio said Brandau had a lunch meeting.
“This is not about the next Summerset,” said Dylan Savory, political director of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council. “This is about our city being a Summerset.”
“Are you going to continue to wait until we have another tragedy? Until what happened in Oakland happens in Fresno?” said Leticia Valencia, an organizer with the nonprofit Faith in Community. “I pray that you listen to the cries of this city, to the cries of this community and don’t let it continue to be silenced by the California Apartment Association.”
Tenants spoke about their personal living conditions: no heat, no power, vermin and mold. One woman said she kept her apartment clean, but rats living in the walls made her daughter sick with pneumonia and gave her allergies. Caprioglio told them the council understands the problem.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula said he was deeply disappointed in the leadership of the council. “I struggle to find how you can say you fully understand and comprehend the depth of this issue,” he said, adding that the government needs to be reminded that “we work for the people.”
The comments were essentially in vain. City Attorney Doug Sloan said reconsidering the ordinance several hours after it was postponed would be a violation of the state Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to attend government meetings.
Brand apologized for the postponement. He said the delay in adoption won’t delay implementation so that the program still starts next September. He said he wants to expand Swearengin’s ordinance to include vacant and blighted buildings, tenant education and hotels that operate as apartment complexes.
“We simply just ran out of time to get a comprehensive program together,” he said. “I know you’ve waited a long time, but I think we can come up with a solution in a short period of time that will address this issue effectively.”
Other efforts by city leaders over the years to address substandard housing have failed. In 1998, an 11-member task force of property managers, developers and owners planned to revive an old ordinance that would give the city more leverage against landlords who refused to fix issues.
Seven years later, an Anti-Slum Strike Force focused on larger apartment complexes with repeat code violations. On the agenda: persuade landlords to bring their properties up to code or pursue fines, lawsuits or criminal sanctions against them; establish a community advisory group; inform tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities.
Just before the recession in 2007, then-Mayor Alan Autry’s 10X10 Blue Ribbon Committee called for more code enforcement inspectors and attorneys, receivership (whereby the city gains legal control of a property), tenant education and a systematic inspection process for frequent code violators.
Swearengin is confident this time will be different because the effort to address substandard housing has taken place within the context of a bigger effort to revamp the city’s general plan, development code, zoning regulations and infrastructure.
“There is such a focus now on taking care of our existing city instead of just going along thinking we’ll just build a new neighborhood; the old one won’t matter anymore,” she said. “That’s really been our history for the city of Fresno for the last 60 years.”