I am responding to a July 31 Bee editorial demanding that the city of Fresno move quickly on an interior-inspection ordinance. It would mandate an inspection of every single rental unit in the city, 89,000-plus units, from single-family homes to large multifamily apartment complexes.
The Bee editorial board took me to task for suggesting that there are other options to addressing Fresno’s slum housing.
Having attended the most recent Code Enforcement Task Force meeting, I can report that there is no universal agreement on the administration’s mandatory inspection scheme. Indeed, in conversations I had following that meeting, some industry leaders told me they felt set up, believing that the mayor pulled the cockroach-ridden carpet out from underneath them.
My council colleague, Clint Olivier, initiated a semiheated discussion when he asked simple questions about cost and who was going to pay for these mandatory searches. We found out quickly that nobody in the room had any idea what the cost was going to be, just that whatever it was, it would be the landlords footing the bill.
At that point, property owner Terance Frazier strongly suggested the cost should be split with the city, and that it wasn’t fair for the administration to demand that landlords and investors shoulder the entire burden. But before there were any answers, if there were answers to be had, the mayor nixed the conversation as the meeting was already running long.
If what I saw in that task force meeting was any indicator, this conversation is far from complete. So I have some suggestions I would like to see taken seriously.
If you want to fight slumlords, which I do, you should create policies that target slumlords. You don’t create a policy that punishes everybody just to go after a few bad apples.
Here’s a suggestion: Properties that have an inordinate number of police and code-enforcement calls for service should trigger some form of inspection. In that process, we will know if we have an irresponsible slumlord on our hands.
At that point, we can penalize that slumlord into submission for not living up to our community’s standards. If we need to tweak or tighten up a few of those standards, now is the appropriate time. This type of action targets the problem directly and leaves well-run properties and responsible landlords alone.
Unfortunately the mayor and anti-landlord activists want to swat a fly with a sledgehammer. The problem with that approach is that, when you use a sledgehammer to take out a fly, you destroy the table, countertop or windowsill underneath, and often miss the fly!
That is my No. 1 problem with the current proposal: It doesn’t focus on the few scumbags, but goes after everybody. If these activists have their way, we’ll have McCarthy Era-style lists, tribunals and persecutions. It’ll create massive damage to our entire rental community. That’s not fair and certainly not business-friendly.
The mayor has a few scant months left in her term, and I don’t blame her for wanting to see this project through to completion. But if we rush this, I predict we will end up with a policy full of errors – punishing good and responsible landlords and Fresno taxpayers. Worse yet, we might hurt the very people we are intending to help.
Most of us in business know the cost of these inspections will eventually be passed on to the tenants. Most of these tenants live below the poverty line, and cannot afford a rent increase with their limited incomes. Will renters be forced to the streets because of this?
Do tenants even want these inspections? What if an inspector knocks on their door and the occupants decline? Would that inspector come back with a search warrant? Can tenants opt out of an inspection? And if so, how is that fair?
What are we to do if, during a mandatory inspection, we find there is something the tenant is doing that is creating slum conditions? Are we going to punish a tenant like we would a landlord?
The city of Fresno already has an inspection service for any tenant who feels abused or neglected by their landlord at no cost. Guess what? Few ever take advantage of it. My guess is many tenants don’t want these inspections any more than their landlords. Truth is, the people who really want these inspections are the social-justice activists.
Answering these questions and vetting these ideas require a thorough conversation and that takes time. I suggest we take the time to do this right.
Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau represents District 2. He can be reached at 559-621-8000.