Fresno’s substandard housing crisis has been in the making since the city’s birth. It’s a story of poverty, racism, urban sprawl and neglect.
Renters, who make up half of the city’s population, mostly live in the city’s older neighborhoods. Many are low-income people of color. Those with limited English and education are vulnerable to predatory landlords who rely on tenants’ lack of mobility and ignorance of their rights.
These Fresnans live, as generations have before them, in apartments and houses infested with pests, hoping the heater will start on cold nights and that they can take a hot shower in the morning. For them, the squalor has become an unwanted but seemingly inevitable way of life.
Byproduct of discrimination
The decay was there at the beginning. In the late 19th century, Fresno’s Chinatown on what was then the west side became a tenderloin district.
Police were bribed to ignore the prostitution, opium dens, gambling and other vices happening there, said Bill Secrest, a historian at the Fresno County Public Library. The lack of police presence meant slumlords could exploit people.
Much like other towns throughout California, substandard housing in Fresno at first was a byproduct of discrimination, Secrest said.
“If you were white, you lived on the east side of the tracks where the courthouse was, where all the retail and best neighborhoods were being established,” he said. “If you were Chinese, you moved to the other side of the tracks.”
Private property deeds included restrictive covenants prohibiting anyone who wasn’t white from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods, including Sunnyside and Fig Garden.
A 1944 deed from Fig Garden reads, “ … Neither said premises, nor any part thereof, shall be used in any manner whatsoever or occupied by any Negro, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Armenian, Asiatic or native of the Turkish Empire, or descendent of above named persons, or anyone not of the white or Caucasian race, provided, however, that such a person may be employed by a resident upon said property as a servant for such resident.”
Other means were used to guarantee segregation. A federal home loan program established during the Great Depression mapped out neighborhoods as more or less desirable, based on racial diversity. Neighborhoods with the most minority residents such as west Fresno were marked in red – a practice that became known as redlining.
Matthew Jendian, chairman of the sociology department at Fresno State, said redlining provided conditions that lead to substandard housing. Banks wouldn’t grant loans in red areas, preventing investment in older neighborhoods and causing the number of owner-occupied properties to shrink.
“You generally don’t have as much stake in the house and neighborhood when you’re paying month-to-month,” he said. “The mortgage industry as a whole contributed to that transition from owner- to renter-occupied and inhibited the investment in those communities where predominantly people of color were living.”
Jendian, who teaches a course on the sociology of race and ethnicity, said racism has kept some landlords from caring about their tenants’ living conditions.
“The less you see yourself in other people, the less likely you are to empathize with and assist them,” he said.
By the 1940s, Fresno had a severe housing shortage, compounded by the fact that neighborhoods outside city limits grew much faster than in the incorporated areas. Meanwhile, the federal government and Fresno housing authorities began to replace substandard housing with public projects. But it wasn’t enough.
After World War II, city commissioners struggled to provide enough housing for thousands of homeless transients in search of agricultural work and returning servicemen and their families.
In 1949, the Fresno City Commission – the predecessor of today’s City Council – voted narrowly in favor of a proposal to build up to 600 federally financed public housing units in west Fresno. The city agreed to waive taxes on the project and remove an equal number of slum dwellings.
Dissenters in the 3-2 vote said public housing amounted to socialism and violated American free enterprise principles.
But Dr. Earl Meyers, a west Fresno physician and member of the Housing Authority, countered that at least 15,000 Fresno residents lived in “deplorable, filthy and unsanitary conditions.” Commissioner Chester Cary offered to take doubters for a ride into the city’s slum areas to show them how private enterprise had failed to meet the needs of many low-income families.
Secrest said the California Fair Housing Act of 1963 changed the way discrimination took place. Proposition 14, which passed the following year, repealed the act but was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1966.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march and rally in Fresno on June 2, 1964, denouncing racial segregation, including Prop. 14. Attended by more than 3,000 people, a Fresno Bee article called it the largest civil rights rally in San Joaquin Valley history.
After that, Secrest said: “You could live wherever you wanted, but the lesser-priced, more modest parts of the housing stock ended up getting abandoned. And as the quality of the neighborhood sagged, people continued northward. That same pattern is going on today.”
Haphazard northward development meant empty parcels remained within the city boundaries for years and contributed to blight, Secrest said. Older homes were sometimes abandoned and allowed to decay. Others were purchased by lower-income people without the means to maintain them.
In 1964, the city and county public works departments prepared a report on population and housing in the Fresno-Clovis area, using census data. It noted that most homes designated as deteriorating or dilapidated were in concentrated minority group neighborhoods.
Of west Fresno, the report said: “This section of the Metropolitan Area has the lowest educational attainment, highest proportion of unskilled and unemployed persons, the lowest income, the lowest home value, and the highest proportion of unsound housing.”
Developers and politicians aided the march toward the San Joaquin River. Fashion Fair mall, which opened in 1969, marked the beginning of the end of downtown Fresno’s retail influence.
Fresno’s northward sprawl gained momentum in the 1970s while the government struggled to balance its resources among the various communities, according to “Fresno County in the 20th Century,” a book by Charles Clough. More subdivisions and shopping centers went up north of Shaw Avenue and were annexed into the city.
“The city found itself having to allocate more and more resources to the northern suburbs at the expense of inner-city projects,” he wrote. “Only federal money and redevelopment projects kept the older city alive.”
Urban renewal projects downtown were augmented by an effort in west Fresno to replace slums with new housing. The construction of Highway 99 in the early 1960s had wiped out large blighted areas.
“Gone was much of the original business district, the Chinatown and old tenderloin,” Clough wrote. “City leaders, however, soon found out that tearing out blighted areas did not eliminate social problems. New slums grew up and old ones expanded.”
By 1992, The Bee reported that the city had ignored more than 1,300 homes that violated health and safety codes, many in the Lowell and Jefferson neighborhoods.
To an extent, Secrest said, substandard housing has become ingrained in Fresno’s culture. Many people aren’t motivated to fight for the community. Others try to do what is right and get outfoxed.
“Fresno is chock-full of self-congratulation: ‘We’re so great, we’re this nice, good-sized city in the central part of California, and we really know how to get things done around here,’ ” he said. “Well, if you look around, things are getting done for certain people, but others are just being cruelly neglected in the process.”