As Fresno struggles to deal with substandard rental housing across the city – identified in a four-month Fresno Bee investigation called “Living in Misery” – one problem cited by officials is the reluctance of low-income tenants to report serious health, safety and code enforcement issues.
Now, the city is trying to make it easier for renters and tenant advocates to report problems and request inspections through the city’s FresGO website and mobile phone app.
The website and app went live less than a year ago, and the app was updated last week to allow for reporting vacant or blighted properties requiring enforcement action by the city.
Fresno leaders were blindsided late last year after it became publicly known that residents at Summerset Village, a 220-unit apartment complex filled with low-income tenants – including many southeast Asian immigrants – were left without heat or hot water for weeks after PG&E shut off the gas service because of damaged, unsafe pipes in the complex. Subsequent inspections of the individual apartments resulted in a list of more than 1,400 code violations.
Revelations of problems that had gone untended for years at the complex sparked renewed calls for the city to take tougher steps against landlords who neglected their rental properties and tenants or allowed their properties to become neighborhood blight.
But squalid conditions in many of the apartments at the Summerset complex had gone undetected by the city’s code enforcement division – mainly because residents were fearful of blowing the whistle and never called the city for help.
“A problem we found at Summerset and other locations, people are reluctant to complain to the city because they’re afraid of retribution,” City Manager Bruce Rudd said.
Rudd said the FresGO apps are expected to make it much easier for people to report serious problems with a few clicks instead of calling City Hall or having to fill out paper forms.
“Now the tenants or advocates can send us pictures of what they’re dealing with, and we can be far more proactive than we have been before,” Rudd said this week. “For example, that photo (in The Bee) of that man with the picture of dead mice on his phone, he could upload that to us directly on the app.”
A problem we found at Summerset (Village) and other locations (is that) people are reluctant to complain to the city because they’re afraid of retribution.
Fresno City Manager Bruce Rudd
The app uses the phone’s GPS location services to know where the report is coming from so that an inspection can be ordered. Photos that are uploaded through the app also give code-enforcement inspectors much-needed documentation to prioritize problems and take action.
There still is some work to do, however.
On the FresGO website and on the mobile phone app, neither the reporting options for vacant/blighted properties nor for code enforcement include categories related to interior conditions of substandard housing.
While users can click on buttons for exterior issues including broken windows, overgrown weeds, graffiti, junk in the yard or alley, illegally parked vehicles, obstructed sidewalks, illegal construction, or chickens or roosters, there are no buttons for the types of health and safety issues inside units documented by The Bee’s reporters: leaky roofs or pipes; mold on ceilings, walls or floors; exposed or dangerous electrical wiring; inoperable heating or plumbing; rodent or insect infestations; broken stairs or railings; or other problems.
Instead, users have to click “new request,” then select “code enforcement issues,” then choose the “other” option under “code enforcement problem,” and describe the particular issue, in addition to uploading photos.
Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the city, described the app as a work in progress. “We’re constantly upgrading and updating,” he said. “That’s one of the best things about the mobile app: it’s not static. It’s very flexible.”
The city is working with the app developer to create a new, separate tab that clearly identifies the types of things that would prompt an interior inspection of a dwelling.
For now, Standriff said, “people have the ‘other’ option, and when they have something that might go through code enforcement, they can post a photo, whether it’s mold or vermin or a busted heater.”
The website and app also require whoever is reporting the problem to leave their name, address and telephone number. The city pledges that the information remains private and is only used for city staff to contact the reporting person. But that may do little to ease the reticence of people who fear retaliatory eviction or have little trust in City Hall.
City Councilman Clint Olivier, whose central Fresno district includes the Summerset Village complex, experienced that reluctance firsthand as he joined volunteers to give free smoke and carbon monoxide alarms to residents. He estimated that 40 percent to 50 percent of residents would not let the volunteers into their apartments.
“You try to put yourself in the place of someone who’s maybe undocumented, afraid of losing their job, their home, afraid of deportation,” Olivier said. “Maybe these squalid conditions are something they’ll just live with rather than complain and risk everything. … There’s fear, but there’s also distrust of any level of government.”
Standriff said the city is exploring whether it can legally allow reports to be made by tenants without providing a name or phone number. “But if you don’t want your information made public, we won’t make it public,” he added. “The whole point of the app is to make the connection between city and citizen as easy as possible.”
Reporting rental housing problems in Fresno
The city has a FresGO website and mobile phone app that residents can use to report code enforcement issues and blighted properties. On the web: https://iframe.publicstuff.com/#?client_id=806#picker-top
On mobile phones: The FresGO app is available as a free download for both Android phones and Apple iPhones, through the Google Play store for Android and the Apple app store. Click “new request,” then “code enforcement issues,” then choose the “other” option under “code enforcement problem.”
By telephone: 559-621-2489.