Will slumlords game the system? Fresno council’s crackdown does not go far enough

Kudos to the Fresno City Council for its recent adoption of tougher fines for property owners who flout health and safety codes at their rental properties.

The council also created a new definition in city law, that of “serial violator.” That is reserved for those property owners who routinely refuse to bring their living quarters up to basic standards, to say nothing of common decency.


Living in misery

In 2016 The Bee produced “Living in Misery,” an in-depth look into substandard housing conditions in Fresno. What a trio of reporters found was that thousands of people were living in rental units infested with mice, cockroaches and black mold, or going without working heat or plumbing systems.

In response, the city approved a law granting code enforcement officers the authority to inspect interiors of rental properties. The city also started using its powers to take rundown complexes into receivership so repairs could be made and basic services restored. And the city created an online rental housing registry to get a better handle on the condition of the estimated 93,000 rental units in town.

New citation amounts

Now the council has amended the Municipal Code to create the serial violator category. That describes the largest owners in the city — companies that have 10 or more properties. If such an owner has 10 or more citations within a year, it becomes a serial violator.

Citations of $250 will be issued for up to the tenth violation. After that, the fines jump to $1,000 for the 11th violation, $5,000 for the 12th and $10,000 for the 13th and every one thereafter.

The increasing cost is meant to motivate property owners to clean up their problems. Yet the schedule is too lenient. It would be more effective to jump the penalty faster, say after the 5th violation.

As it is, some property owners have used city inspections to discover what is wrong at their units. The citation becomes merely a cost of doing business.

Councilman Miguel Arias, who authored the amendment, noted it is focused not on mom-and-pop property owners, but rental companies with large holdings. To get those firms to toe the line, the council should consider requiring rental companies hire property managers whose jobs would be to keep units in good shape. Other cities in California have taken that approach, with good results for tenants.

Money speaks louder than laws, so the City Council should not be shy with measures that get the attention of property owners in their pocketbooks. Most owners already do the right thing for their tenants. It is the unscrupulous few who need the stick of heavy enforcement. The goal must be to eradicate “living in misery” from Fresno for good.