By Simone Cranston-Rhodes
In July of this year, a tenant in Fresno woke up to a ceiling partially caving in. This was caused by a leaking swamp-cooler and inflicted injury to the tenant. At this same apartment complex, a number of other tenants have complained about leaky swamp-coolers on their roofs. It is sad to say that stories like these are not as uncommon as we would like to believe.
As I began my adventure of working with Tenants Together in the Central Valley earlier this year, I was alarmed at the magnitude of problems that exist. The Central Valley is riddled with stories of homes with ceilings falling, covered in bed bugs and lacking heating and cooling. These stories raise questions: What happened? What has allowed our city and home to no longer recognize these living conditions as a tragedy but as an everyday reality for many?
On a hot August day, I head out to an apartment complex off of Kings Canyon in Fresno to meet with Lisa De Los Santos. She is a mother of three who has been living at her apartment with her family since early 2013. “When we moved in the landlord said we brought the bed bugs, but how is that possible when we never had them before and every other unit here has them?” De Los Santos says, frustrated, explaining her living situation.
She examines her back and shows me her many bite marks. “I no longer can sleep through the night; as soon as I lay down I can feel them crawling.”
De Los Santos, like so many others, is eager to learn about her tenant rights to improve her and her family’s lives. With the overwhelming number of issues that everyone faces today, housing might seem like an afterthought. However, without having a habitable home many other aspects of your life can be affected. Lack of safe secure housing can be linked to poor school performance for children, sexual violence and many more things.
De Los Santos’ journey to improve her life begins with learning her rights. A good way for anyone to begin is to visit the Tenants Together Web site (www.tenantstogether.org), call the statewide free hotline at 888-495-8020 or attend one of the group’s local clinics.
As summer comes to an end, De Los Santos is concerned about her children returning to school covered in bites from the infestation. She and her fellow building mates are fed up with the living conditions, but many do not have the income to move. Even after citations from the city, the landlord has done little to fix the problem. “He has done little to upkeep the place, but has no problem collecting rent!” De Los Santos huffs as she shows me a jar that she has collected of dead bed bugs she picked out of her rug.
Why is De Los Santos’ story so common? Why is it that third world living conditions are tolerated in our city? Even after the city cites landlords, nothing is done to fix the problem.
It has become clear that the problem is not that individual tenants have problems with their housing, but rather the emergence of systemic neglect on the part of large landlords. More than half the population of Fresno currently rents. The majority of those renters rent from big landlords that own thousands of buildings and units. The business of being a landlord has become an extremely profitable one in the Central Valley, and as a mark of any profitable business they want to collect as much money without incurring costs.
What we need to remember is that tenants are still consumers who not only should expect a good product but also have legal protection to have a habitable home. Imagine people in our wonderful city entitled to live in habitable conditions.
Tenants Together’s goals are to empower tenants by learning their rights and create institutionalized regulations on landlords. The first part includes canvassing in neighborhoods and letting people know of their renters’ rights. The latter would include routine inspections of units and more money to go into programs such as Code Enforcement. As these programs lose money, we can visually see (and even more scary is what we don’t see) the quality of housing slip in Fresno.
Too many times, I have seen young kids living in houses without heating or moldy ceilings falling in. It is time for our city and our residents to demand a higher quality of living for everyone.
Amid our national and international challenges, I urge you to not forget our struggle at home. We will fight the battle here to improve our lives and the lives of those living in inhabitable living conditions. Unless we unite to say this will not be okay in our Central Valley, nothing will change. Please join and contact Tenants Together to improve the quality of life for the people of Fresno.
To get involved, check out our free legal clinic at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 18 at the Dickey Youth Center (1515 Divisadero). This is a great place to learn about renters’ rights and get legal advice on housing issues. Also, there will be a Slumlord Free Fresno campaign meeting on Sept. 30 at 5:30 p.m. at the same location.
Simone Cranston-Rhodes is the Fresno regional organizer for Tenants Together. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.