Low-income housing advocates gathered for a vigil Monday at Summerset Village Apartments, one year after city officials first learned that about 1,000 tenants at the central Fresno complex were living without heat and hot water.
The tenants, mostly Southeast Asian refugees, lived for a month in squalid conditions after a natural gas leak caused Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to shut off service to the complex on Nov. 12, 2015. City leaders found out Nov. 20.
Chris Henry, the out-of-town owner, was thrust into the spotlight as Fresno’s most prominent negligent property owner. Henry, a Kern County oil company owner and restaurateur in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara, blamed the on-site manager for failing to tell him about the conditions.
The crisis spurred Mayor Ashley Swearengin to declare a state of emergency while crews worked to restore service at the complex at 2103 N. Angus St.
On Monday, close to 70 people – the majority of them tenants – stood in the parking lot at the complex. Tenants spoke about how miserable last November was. Chan Thaenboupha said not much has changed since then. After the city got involved, he said, things “improved a little bit.”
“I’ve been here 30 years, and I’ve still got roaches, still got mice inside the house,” he said. “Outside is fixed, but not the inside. I still see termites. I saw a couple last week.”
A lot has happened since the Summerset crisis. About 150 current and former tenants are named in a lawsuit against Henry, which seeks $3 million and includes a wrongful-death claim on behalf of the family of Her Xa Lor, 78, who died Jan. 2 of respiratory failure and pneumonia.
Pahoua Lor, a local attorney who is representing the tenants, said many units at Summerset still have issues. She said tenants complain to the new on-site manager, but many tell her their problems go unresolved.
“I don’t want complaints to fall on deaf ears anymore,” she said.
Henry said he spent $1.6 million repairing the property, but Lor said tenants continue to complain of livability issues such as vermin infestation and faulty heaters. She said the amount spent indicates there were more issues at the complex than anticipated, and that is what happens when an owner neglects their property.
The crisis at Summerset spurred The Bee to highlight Fresno’s problems of substandard housing in a May series called “Living in Misery.” It found that units all over the city are unlivable while landlords go without penalty because of the city’s lack of oversight.
Elaine Robles-McGraw, the city’s neighborhood revitalization manager until 2015 who is on the mayor’s code enforcement task force, did a driving tour of the city before the vigil and found rental properties without adequate roofs, without windows and without heaters. She said she is hopeful that Swearengin will soon bring forward an ordinance for routine interior inspections.
“I’m here to tell you that slum housing exists in every single part of the city,” Robles-McGraw said. “That is not OK. It’s not OK for one resident in the city of Fresno, not OK for one child, one elder to live in those kinds of conditions.”
I’m here to tell you that slum housing exists in every single part of the city.
Elaine Robles-McGraw, Fresno neighborhood revitalization manager
Last month, Henry was ordered to pay more than $200,000 to the city of Fresno for code violations. Code officers who inspected the 220-unit complex originally found 1,450 violations worth $290,000 in fines, not including administrative costs. Henry appealed, and an administrative hearing officer upheld 872 of the violations.
City documents showed 19 fires since 2000 and seven code enforcement cases in the 28 months leading to the gas outage at Summerset. The files showed that inspectors in one case didn’t return to see whether repairs were completed, and all of the cases were closed without billing Henry.
The city has since begun changing the way it approaches code enforcement. The city manager created a team focused on tackling properties with the most calls for police, fire and code enforcement service. Nine properties on the list have been inspected so far.
Last week, a judge ordered the owner of one of those properties to give up his apartment complex after he repeatedly failed to repair serious health and safety violations, including water damage and a bad roof. Now, a court-appointed business will fix up the property and then sell it.
The City Council voted Thursday in favor of beefing up that enforcement team, now called the Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team. The council also approved a new position, called a landlord-tenant ombudsman, to act as a mediator.
Not everyone is satisfied with the progress. Lucky Siphongsay of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries said the most recent initiatives do little to fix the city’s substandard housing crisis.
“It is a reactive complaints-based system that puts responsibility entirely on tenants,” Siphongsay said. “Until we have a baseline inspection of every rental property in our city, we have no way of knowing how many other apartment complexes like Summerset remain in our city today. The bottom line is people are suffering.”