Bringing to fruition an idea that city leaders have debated on and off for at least 20 years, the Fresno City Council narrowly approved a plan to begin routine interior inspections of rental properties.
Hundreds packed the Fresno City Council chamber Thursday night in support of Mayor Lee Brand’s plan to begin interior inspections of rental properties across the city, some holding signs that read, “End slum housing crisis.” After more than three hours of comment and deliberation, the plan was adopted by a 4-3 vote.
“The city is taking on one of the most daunting challenges it has ever done,” Brand said.
The city is taking on one of the most daunting challenges it has ever done.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand
In May, The Bee highlighted substandard housing in Fresno in a special report 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.
City Council members Esmeralda Soria, Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio and Luis Chavez voted for the ordinance. Garry Bredefeld, Clint Olivier and Steve Brandau voted against it.
Though Brand initially struggled to find a balance that would achieve support from both sides of the issue, the proposal had wide backing by Thursday’s meeting from tenant advocate groups including Faith in Fresno, Building Healthy Communities and the Lowell Community Development Corp. It also, notably, achieved support from the California Apartment Association of Greater Fresno, which represents rental owners and managers, as well as Granville Realty.
“It’s extremely rare to have such a controversial piece of legislation that has opposing sides supporting it,” Baines said. “We ought to relish it tonight.”
During the public comment period, most people spoke in favor of the proposal. But nearly a dozen spoke against it, including members of the Fresno Association of Realtors.
Those in opposition said good landlords, especially those who don’t own many properties, would be unfairly burdened, that tenants cause a significant portion of substandard housing issues, that inspections will be costly and lead to higher rents and increased homelessness, and that the inspections would violate tenants’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Shannon Mar, a member of the Realtors association, urged the council to postpone the vote until a study could be performed on the economic impact of such regulation on landlords. He said the plan would create an undue burden on landlords who try to do the right thing.
Another member said tenant education should also be mandatory if landlords are held to mandatory standards.
Bredefeld said Fresno clearly has a housing problem and that everyone wants to solve it. But he said Brand’s ordinance is an overreach and punishes people who already do the right thing. He suggested that inspection costs will increase significantly over time “when this government program gets bigger, as most do.”
He said the city should not implement “feel good” laws without understanding the unintended consequences. “Being opposed to this legislation is about being in support of enforcing our existing laws and codes,” he said. The statement was booed loudly by the audience.
Bredefeld, Olivier and Brandau all expressed concern that the ordinance will violate tenants’ Fourth Amendment rights. But City Attorney Doug Sloan said inspectors ask for permission to enter targeted units. If refused, the city can obtain an inspection warrant, which the Fourth Amendment permits.
Those who spoke in support of Brand’s proposal were students, teachers, health care professionals, advocates and low-income tenants. They said people in unsafe housing are among the city’s most vulnerable residents, and many don’t complain for fear of eviction.
“This ordinance, while not perfect, is desperately needed. If we don’t pass this now, we know what will happen tonight, and that’s that children and families will go to sleep in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. We need to fix this now,” said the Rev. Sophia DeWitt, who used to lead the nonprofit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries and has worked for more than a decade with refugees and immigrants.
Brand’s plan, called the Rental Housing Improvement Act, was held over from former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s administration. During a meeting in December, the council voted to postpone a decision. Then-Mayor-elect Brand promised to take it up again Thursday.
Many people praised him for keeping that promise.
Greg Terzakis, executive director of the California Apartment Association of Greater Fresno, said the extra time let the group get critical questions answered and eased members’ worries about the plan. He said the plan is not an overreach because the CAA, which represents the owners of just under half of the rental units in Fresno, encourages its members to inspect their units at least twice a year.
“Something needs to be done about substandard housing,” he said. “It’s not good for our city, it’s illegal and it’s immoral.”
Something needs to be done about substandard housing. It’s not good for our city, it’s illegal and it’s immoral.
Greg Terzakis, executive director of the California Apartment Association of Greater Fresno
A woman who identified herself as Fabiola said in Spanish that she lived for eight years in an apartment where the window leaked every time it rained. She said cockroach and rat infestations returned despite fumigating every three months. When she complained to the landlord, she said, she received a 60-day notice to vacate.
“It’s unfair because I’ve been there more than 10 years and never been late on my rent,” she said. “Many people are afraid of speaking up. I’m scared to be here at this moment.”
The plan is threefold, including a database of properties, inspections and tenant education. Every residential rental property – apartments, condominiums and single-family homes – within city limits is required to register. From that database, leaders will begin rounds of baseline inspections.
Brand hopes most properties will register quickly so that inspections can start in September. There are an estimated 85,000 rental units in Fresno. He wants to finish the initial round of inspections within five years.
Inspections of apartment complexes will be done by sampling a portion of the units, with the sampling formula based on the size of the complex. Every single-family home also will be inspected. The inspections will cover a basic list of state health and safety standards.
Brand said properties that fail will be referred automatically for enforcement under the city’s health and safety regulations, which include an array of fines, penalties and orders to fix the problems. Owners whose property fails the initial inspection will get 30 days to fix issues.
Owners and managers of apartments and houses that pass the baseline inspection will be allowed to self-inspect and self-certify compliance with health and safety laws in subsequent years. The self-certification requires the landlord to inspect every unit every year. The city will conduct periodic audits of landlords’ self-inspection records; if they are found to be falsified, stiff fines will be imposed.
Landlords will not be charged a fee to register their properties in the database, and fees for inspections won’t exceed $100. Properties under 10 years old will be exempt from inspections but will have to register in the database. Apartments that already are part of other inspection programs, including federally subsidized Section 8 housing, also will be exempt, but representatives must file a legal affidavit certifying that they already are fully inspected.
Tenants will learn their rights and responsibilities. Under Brand’s proposal, “the landlord is not responsible for failing an inspection if it can be clearly identified as a tenant problem,” he said. “But it does not relieve the owner of the obligation to fix the problem.”
The program also establishes a separate section of the city’s code enforcement division to focus solely on health and safety problems in substandard rental housing. Six inspectors plus support staff will be tasked with proactive enforcement, while six other inspectors will focus on responding to complaints. Four attorneys will help to start.
Landlords and tenants would receive 14 days’ notice ahead of any inspections – a feature that would give property owners or managers time to make needed repairs to comply with the law.