Housing Blight

When will Fresno’s promised rental inspection program begin?

During a packed Fresno City Council meeting in February, city leaders approved a plan to tackle substandard rental housing by implementing routine interior inspections.

The program, which includes creating a database of properties and tenant education, was proposed to start in September. But housing activists, tenants and property owners say they have heard little about the plan or what to expect once the inspections begin.

“It makes me feel unimportant because the city is taking its time,” said Virginia, a renter who asked not to be identified by her last name because she is undocumented.

Virginia, her husband and three children, ages 1  1/2 to 12, live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment near Butler and Cedar avenues in southeast Fresno. The air conditioner has been broken for 2  1/2 years. The kitchen and bathroom sinks leak and the appliances are old. The smell of gas occasionally comes from the stove, Virginia said.

The rental act gave Virginia hope. “It was acknowledgment that we need help,” she said in Spanish. “It’s not just me. There are a lot of people and apartments that need help.”

City officials assure that the inspection program remains a top priority.

A presentation on the rental act is expected to be heard at the Oct. 12 City Council meeting. The item was postponed from the Sept. 28 session because Mayor Lee Brand and Councilmen Paul Caprioglio and Oliver Baines were in Spain learning about high-speed rail.

The city is working with Bitwise Industries on the online registry that is expected to roll out after testing is completed in a few weeks. A manager was hired and the city has started hiring and training inspectors, said Jennifer Clark, director of development and resource management.

“This is one of the mayor’s top priorities, so we’re just as anxious as the rest of our community to get the program implemented,” Clark said.

In May 2016, 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, affecting thousands of renters, but landlords go without penalty because of the city’s lack of oversight.

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.

Former Mayor Ashley Swearengin presented an inspection plan to the council before she left office, but it was Brand who had to get support from both sides of the issue and follow through with an ordinance. Brand initially struggled, but the final version got wide backing from tenant advocates and the California Apartment Association, which represents rental owners and managers.

Creating a baseline

Under the rental act, every residential rental property – apartments, condominiums and single-family homes – within city limits is required to register. There are an estimated 85,000 rental units in Fresno. From that database, the city will begin rounds of baseline inspections:

▪ Inspections will be done by sampling a portion of the units based on the size of the complex. Every single-family home will be inspected.

▪ Properties that fail will be referred for enforcement under the city’s health and safety regulations. Owners will get 30 days to fix issues. Those that pass the baseline inspection will be allowed to self-inspect and self-certify compliance with health and safety laws in subsequent years. Self-certification requires the landlord to inspect every unit every year.

▪ There will be no registration fee and the cost for inspections won’t exceed $100. Properties under 10 years old are exempt from inspections but have to register. Apartments under other inspection programs, including federally subsidized Section 8 housing, also are exempt.

Greg Terzakis, senior vice president of the apartment association’s Central Valley region, said he has received phone calls from property owners wondering about the status of the rental act. About half of the property owners in Fresno are members of the association, Terzakis said.

The association has provided the city with rental inventory data, has volunteered its members to help test the registry, and offered member properties to serve as test sites for inspections.

“We, the association, will work with the city however they want us to work with them to get this thing off the ground as quickly as possible,” Terzakis said.

Concerned for tenants

Faith in the Valley, a grassroots organization that represents around 120 congregations in the central San Joaquin Valley said the city declined to meet with the group so organizers could get an update on the plan. The organization wants to help and is concerned about tenant education.

“We can’t wait for it to begin, we have to let folks know this is coming,” said community organizer Lety Valencia. Tenants, especially those who are undocumented, “won’t open the door.”

“The city needs to be really clear where it stands on immigration and let tenants know that code enforcement officers will look for health and safety (violations), not immigration status,” Valencia said.

Faith in the Valley and Councilman Luis Chavez will co-host a community meeting on the rental act from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 22 after morning Mass at St. Anthony Mary Claret Catholic Church. The meeting will have Spanish and Hmong translators. The city attorney will also attend to answer questions.

Virginia, the tenant, hopes she is home when the inspectors show up.

“It’s necessary for somebody else to come and inspect the apartments, not the managers,” she said. Requests for repairs take days to be filled, and usually it’s the property manager trying to cobble something together to stop a leak, she said.

“Once (inspections) do start, I’m going to feel a great sense of gratitude, like my voice did matter and they acknowledged us.”

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