Being a Fresno slumlord is about to get more expensive. Here’s why

Fresno’s moving toward a new policy that would punish landlords who refuse to proactively fix problems cited by code enforcement — with the end result being substantially larger fines.

City Council this month unanimously approved the policy, which says rental property owners are designated as “serial violators” after receiving 10 citations in a year.

If finalized by the council Thursday, the new policy will take effect in 30 days.

For example, a typical $250 fine would grow to $1,000 on the 11th citation. The 12th citation would grow to $5,000. Citations thereafter would grow up to $10,000 if the problems continue to be unaddressed.

Councilmember Miguel Arias, who sponsored the change, said the policy’s meant to target “a handful” of property owners who oversee hundreds or even thousands of properties in town.

It is not aimed, for example, at a retiree who owns a few properties, he said.

“A handful of property owners in the city made a decision that it’s more cost effective for the city to bring the (violation) to their attention instead of hiring their own inspectors,” Arias said. “Our code enforcement officers spend a lot of their time on some of those frequent users.“

Because they spend so much time at serial violators’ properties, Fresno’s roughly 60 code enforcement officers have less time to respond to garbage cleanup, vegetation fire hazards and other quality-of-life issues, Arias said.

Fresno has wrestled with improving slumlord properties in recent years. The council adopted the Rental Housing Improvement Act in February 2017 to try to tackle substandard housing problems. The act includes a database of properties, tenant education and a routine interior inspection of rental units.

Affordable and safe housing is a major issue for the “poorest of the poor,” according to Patience Milrod, an attorney with Central California Legal Services. About 70 percent of the calls to the nonprofit law firm are related to housing, she said.

The new policy isn’t a silver bullet to fix Fresno’s housing woes, but may be an important piece in making sure units are kept up to legal and ethical standards of living, she said. “That’s crucial for our clients,” she said.

As California faces a housing crisis, many Central San Joaquin Valley communities like Fresno have low vacancy rates for apartment units, driving up rents. Experts agree a large part of the solution is an increase in inventory, which means building more affordable housing.

The California Apartment Association, which represents about 43,000 units in the Fresno area, supported the new serial violator policy, according to Greg Terzakis, senior vice president of the rental group.

Property owners are already required to maintain basic housing needs, like heating, structural integrity, plumbing and pests. The new policy reinforces that, he said.

Some landlords need to be educated about why what they’re doing wrong, Terzakis said, while others try to skirt the issues.

He’s confident the new policy targets only the property owners unwilling to do “what is legal and what is right.”

“There’s no way they don’t know what they’re doing wrong,” he said. “This is another tool for the city to be able to go after landlords and managers who actually refuse to participate in the program.”

Anyone can report potential code enforcement violations by calling 3-1-1 or by using the FresGo smartphone app. Reports can also be made by mail or in-person at City Hall, 2600 Fresno St. #3076, Fresno, CA, 93721.
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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.