Housing Blight

Owner wouldn’t fix his rundown apartments, so a Fresno judge took them away

City code enforcement inspector John Tanksley examines a broken heater, improperly hooked up, with bare wires exposed, at an apartment complex at 4551 E. Clay, as part of a new code enforcement effort by the city to address substandard housing.
City code enforcement inspector John Tanksley examines a broken heater, improperly hooked up, with bare wires exposed, at an apartment complex at 4551 E. Clay, as part of a new code enforcement effort by the city to address substandard housing. jwalker@fresnobee.com

The owner of a central Fresno apartment complex where one family was forced to use an open oven for heat was ordered by a judge this month to give up his property – the first judgment of its kind in Fresno County.

In March, city officials sued Guadalupe Fernandez of Tulare. They asked the Fresno County Superior Court to force Fernandez to fix a long list of housing issues that code enforcement officers found during an inspection of the property in January. It was the first time the city had ever sued a residential property owner for substandard conditions.

The Bee highlighted Fresno’s problems of substandard housing earlier this year in a series 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.

Code officers targeted the 15-unit complex of four buildings on East Clay Avenue, just east of Highway 168. Fernandez’s property had four calls for code enforcement service and 11 police calls in the year leading up to the inspection. Among the violations were a substandard roof, rotted wood, lack of adequate heating, vermin, clogged sewer lines, damaged plumbing fixtures and pervasive water damage. City officials said the property posed an immediate and serious danger.

Fernandez’s apartments had a substandard roof, rotted wood, lack of adequate heating, vermin, clogged sewer lines, damaged plumbing fixtures and pervasive water damage.

Fernandez was given months to finish repairs, but the work dragged on. His complex was the first to be targeted by the city manager’s Strike Team on Problem Properties. Under the directive, apartments with the highest number of code complaints, fire and police calls are tagged for inspections. Landlords must correct problems or face receivership and possibly criminal charges.

Using receivership, the city can ask for a court-appointed person or company to take control of a property with severe health and safety violations. The receiver fixes it up using rent and income from the property itself and recovers all costs through liens, or later sells the property. As a last resort, the city can ask the court to seize money from the owner’s other personal assets to pay for repair or legal costs.

Fernandez, 61, owns one other property in Fresno.

Fines for violations

City Manager Bruce Rudd said Fernandez kept assuring code inspectors that he would fix problems at the Clay Avenue complex, but “it finally got to the point where I didn’t think that would happen.” He said some problems, such as broken heaters, have been fixed, but major structural issues remain.

The city has fined Fernandez $67,700 since February for failing to get permits on time and not fixing outstanding code violations. The first inspection uncovered about 250 violations.

When the city filed its petition for receivership in late October, about 90 violations remained, said Deputy City Attorney Felicia Espinosa. She said his unlicensed contractor testified in court to having fixed smaller issues such as light fixtures and fire alarms.

The court appointed business renewal consultant Terence Long as the receiver for Fernandez’s property.

Espinosa said the city isn’t expecting payment for the fines. Receivership costs are the first to be repaid. Long is paid $250 a hour, but his contractors just started working, so the total will be determined much later. Next up for repayment are the city’s code enforcement costs and attorney fees. Fernandez owes the city about $12,000 for repeated inspections, but attorney fees have yet to be tallied.

The property will likely be sold after Long finishes making upgrades. Espinosa said that happens in the vast majority of substandard housing receivership cases.

“That’s why the judge wanted to make sure we met our burden (of proof),” she said. “It’s one of the most dramatic measures out there.”

At the Clay Avenue complex, one family with two small children kept warm despite their broken heater by turning on the oven. The apartment also had mildew, a leaky ceiling water cooler vent, two broken stove burners and enough space between the front door and wall to stick a finger in and pop open the top lock.

New development: The City Council voted Thursday night to give the team more staff and resources.

Fernandez did not return a call seeking comment, but disputed the city’s version of events in March.

“I don’t have a clogged drain, not one,” he said at the time, adding that garbage had been removed and he had knocked down the weeds. He said he would replace the roof by summer. “When it comes to the tenants, it’s all taken care of, the water leaks, the heater, everything like that is done.”

Fernandez later acknowledged he could have done a better job with upkeep. He said his intention when he bought the property 15 years ago was to give people a “clean place” to live, but when he got sick four years ago he hired someone else to maintain it.

Strike team response

Rudd created the strike team this year to go after Fresno’s worst rental properties. He assigned two code enforcement officers to inspect 13 apartment complexes. The team now includes four code officers, two attorneys and 30 properties, ranging from eight units to 365. The strategy has also evolved, from targeting specific properties to now beginning to go after the entire housing stock of certain irresponsible owners.

“It’s kind of like when you get into a street fight,” Rudd said. “You’ve got to just take on the biggest guy and then what you do, everyone else realizes.”

The team has inspected nine properties so far. Some owners fixed their properties, while others remain under the city’s eye. Rudd has acknowledged that the process is slow. He said inspectors had to get a warrant and locksmith to enter some apartments when property owners were unresponsive.

“As long as the property owner is willing to show some good-faith effort, we’re willing to work with them,” he said. “It’s when you just choose to ignore us  .”

The city recently petitioned the court to place another property with a different owner into receivership. Rudd said the process should proceed more quickly in the future as the city gains more experience.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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