Valley Voices

Other cities hold slumlords accountable, so why not Fresno?

Sandra Machuca is with her granddaughters Francis Hernandez, 2, left, and sister Unique, 3, in the girls’ bedroom of their apartment in Fresno, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The residence at the time was infested with bedbugs, requiring the girls to sleep on the floor.
Sandra Machuca is with her granddaughters Francis Hernandez, 2, left, and sister Unique, 3, in the girls’ bedroom of their apartment in Fresno, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The residence at the time was infested with bedbugs, requiring the girls to sleep on the floor. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a renowned author and educator, warns of the dangers of phrases such as “slumlords,” “vermin infestation,” “homeless.” He urges us to make a real connection with the visceral experience of substandard housing, to connect with the suffering of families at the hands of profit-driven slumlords and failed leadership.

This summer, inspired by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, who lived in a Milwaukee trailer park for 10 months to chronicle poverty and profit in the rental market, I set out to live alongside families in Fresno suffering in slum housing. As a researcher and mother, I needed to see firsthand the living conditions I experienced as a child.

I’ve seen entire neighborhoods deteriorated, and mothers’ hearts ripped from their souls as their families were torn apart by substandard housing and eviction.

Hearts race, palms sweat and body temperatures rise as fear cloaks brown bodies who feel they have nowhere to turn because City Hall and the system will fail them. A code complaint about slum housing can push a family into eviction and onto the street.

For 130 years, Fresno officials have protected slumlords, yet we expect our most vulnerable residents to trust those who wear the city emblem.

Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and countless other cities throughout California have implemented routine interior-inspection programs – but not Fresno.

Crisis reveals character, and unfortunately, Fresno’s housing crisis exposed many Fresno city leaders as refusing to hold slumlords accountable for the pain and poor health they cause.

For years, I’ve conducted research and engaged Fresno State students in civic participation with faith leaders, community leaders and courageous tenants. Time and time again, we’ve sounded the alarm of Fresno’s housing crisis, just as past administrations have, but perhaps we’ve been sounding the wrong alarm. Lurking beneath the housing crisis is a crisis of leadership and of priorities.

I know this because I’m serving on the Mayor-Council Code Enforcement Task Force. To prepare for this role, I joined with a dedicated group who labored long hours on weekends and evenings researching practical, evidence-driven solutions to address Fresno’s housing crisis. The fact is, we’ve done our part.

Nearly five months ago, as a launch point for the task force’s work, our coalition provided comprehensive research, including state and federal reports, scholarly articles, statistical data, policy papers, and best practices, including templates, from California cities comparable to Fresno. Our years in neighborhoods, bearing witness to the human suffering due to city-supported practices of negligent landlords, gave urgency to our efforts. It’s time for city leaders to push it through to the finish line.

All task force members – property owners and others – claim to condemn slumlords; however, a few power players refuse to stand on the side of righteousness and common sense. The phrase “good ol’ boys network” once had an obscured meaning to me. However, I can now see the painful wrath this network has on our most vulnerable neighbors.

We must take a deep look at the soul of a city that allows so many to suffer. I was shocked at the silence from City Hall when The Bee’s special investigation into slum housing hit the press. This silence continues to fuel the slumlords’ defense: blaming the victims whom they trap in their dilapidated properties, and distracting the public from ruthless business practices and the city’s failed leadership.

The mayor and most of the task force are not proposing anything unusual or out of the question. We simply want the city to enforce basic California health and safety laws to protect residents. Good landlords will continue to do business because they have nothing to fear. Slumlords will be held accountable. That’s it. It’s that simple.

All restaurants are subject to routine inspections. All of them. Why not rental properties and apartments?

Frankly, I’m offended that the city or anyone else would try to impugn the integrity or the commitment of some of the task force members who are fighting for real solutions for families.

Slumlords in Fresno are only doing what they’ve been allowed to do for generations: make profits by exploiting vulnerable families. For them, business is good, and they’re grateful to the Fresno City Council members who allow this to happen.

It is time to take a stand against business as usual. Do you stand with the task force members who are calling for change, community organizations, faith-based leaders and renters? Or with the slumlords?

Janine Nkosi is a lecturer of sociology at California State University, Fresno, and is a member of the Mayor-Council Code Enforcement Task Force

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