By Simone Cranston-Rhodes
In late 2013 I embarked on a journey as a tenants’ right advocate in Fresno by becoming an organizer with Tenants Together. When I began discussing tenants’ rights the issue was barely on anyone’s radar, no one at City Hall was talking about it, and for local groups, it was not a top priority.
Over the years our Slumlord Free Fresno campaign started to gain traction. The general public began to become aware that over half of Fresno’s residents are tenants and many of them are living in uninhabitable conditions. Through monthly seminars on tenants’ rights that offered free legal advice, we began to realize the systemic problems that were causing these horrible living conditions in Fresno.
In November of 2015 at Summerset Apartments, a building complex in central Fresno, residents had no gas for weeks. During these cold months, I met with families with elders and children who lived without heat or the ability to cook. Many of these families faced language barriers and fear of a system they knew nothing about. Tragically, an elderly tenant froze to death during these weeks. It is unacceptable that living conditions in our city have to come to this before our leaders take notice.
Finally, after years of our suggesting routine inspections of rental units in the City of Fresno, Mayor Ashley Swearengin has created a task force to create a policy for routine inspections. It was one of her top points during her last State of the City address. It is wonderful to hear city leaders talk about creating livable housing for Fresno. But we need never have gotten here. The same mayor who is now creating a solution to inhabitable housing presided over an administration that cut over half the Code Enforcement officers in the city.
In February of 2009, we had 50 Code Enforcement officers. In November of 2015, we had 23. Without Code Enforcement officers to uphold policies then we will be in the same place we started. Through my years of work for tenants’ rights, I have seen greater awareness of the issues. And it brings me so much joy that we as a city have prioritized habitable housing for our citizens. It is a matter of life and death.
City of Clovis: No Accountability
On July 13 I got a call from Clovis resident Jennie Winsmann, a mother of two small children who had been living in horrendous housing conditions for the last three months. Now that the Fresno Bee and Fresno leaders are aware of the substandard housing conditions that so many of our residents live in, these issues are no longer falling on deaf ears in the City of Fresno. However, little did I know that in our seemingly utopian neighboring city of Clovis, things are not much better, and in fact may be worse.
Winsmann moved into The Royal Villa Apartments on the corner of Shaw and Peach avenues in Clovis after leaving two previous apartments. “In 2013 my oldest daughter, who was three, was being bitten so badly by bed bugs that I had to break my lease and get out. The next spot we could find was infested with roaches. We stayed because my husband and I could not afford to break another lease. In March of this year we moved here, and now I am starting to get depressed. Will we ever be able to live somewhere that is habitable?”
The problem started with the neighbor’s upstairs toilet leaking into her bathroom. With sewage leaking into her bathroom every day, the maintenance man at the apartment barely fixed the problem before it would return later. In April, mold began to appear on the bathroom wall. Winsmann complained to the property manager on April 29, 2016. As of July 13, 2016, the problem has not been addressed. In fact, after mushrooms began to appear, the only solution offered by the maintenance man was simply to paint over the mold rather than try to remove it. He stated this is company policy at all nine apartment complexes where he works.
In January of 2016, California State Senate passed Senate Bill No. 655; stating that any mold visible on walls is deemed inhabitable living conditions and must be completely removed. It is clear why this law has been passed. Both of Winsmann’s young children are experiencing health problems because of the mold. It has gotten so bad she does not want to let her children into the only bathroom in the apartment to use the bathroom. This is no way to live.
What responsibility does the City of Clovis have to maintain habitable housing conditions for its citizens?
During my time as an advocate for tenants in Fresno, I discovered the best resource was to call the Fresno City Code Enforcement Department to report inhabitable housing conditions. I have complaints about how fast this department works to fix these problems for our citizens, but unlike the City of Clovis, at least we have a department. Interestingly, if you Google search “Clovis Code Enforcement” a phone number appears. I called this number, which took me to an automated message, where I could click to pay my water bill along with other things. The voice on the message indicated that there is no operator for this line, and there was nothing about a code enforcement department. This was a dead end.
Next, I went to Clovis City Hall and Clovis Police Department. At both places, the sectaries I talked to were sympathetic to my story but still did not seem to have a good idea about what the City of Clovis could do about it. I received a number for a Corporal Iri Guerra with CPD and City Council secretary referred me to an employee at Clovis Building and Development Department, who is supposed to deal with code complaints.
As of July 16, I have not received a call back from the Building and Development Department. Having years of experience as a tenant advocate I got much further than Winsmann had in the past few months. But still not far enough. Winsmann had been told to call Code Enforcement earlier, but she told me, “whoever I ended up talking to on the phone said they do not deal with mold issues [and that] my best bet was to move out and sue the landlord.”
Is this how tenants who live in Clovis should be treated when they are looking for help? If recent state laws have been passed to protect us, why is she not receiving any assistance?
Corporal Guerra called me back on Friday, July 15, and said he would follow up with Winsmann and talk to the property manager. I am hoping for the best and that these issues will be resolved. What we need to understand is most people in Winsmann’s situation would probably never reach Corporal Guerra, get frustrated, and receive no help.
According to California Civil Code 1942.2 once a written request by the city is issued to the landlord, the landlord has 35 days to fix the problem. If the problem is not fixed in that time, the landlord can no longer collect rent. This law offers other protections for the tenant, as well. Once a citation is filed with the city the landlord cannot evict the tenant for six months, as it would be deemed as retaliation.
These laws and protections are critical to maintaining healthy living conditions to all our citizens. To enforce these laws, we need active and visible engagement from the City of Fresno and Clovis. Clovis, at the very least, should have a contact number that is clear and easy to reach for citizens to report code violations. It should not be children who pay the price with their health. As we have done in Fresno, we must apply pressure on the City of Clovis by demanding more action on the city’s part to ensure habitable housing conditions for all citizens.
Tenants Together Hotline: 888-495-8020 ($25 a year membership fee)
California Legal Services Hotline (Free Legal Advice for low-income families): 559-570-1200
Pahoua Lor, Tenant Attorney (Fees apply): 559-288-1800
Fresno City Code Enforcement Department: 559-621-8400
Corporal Iri Guerra (Code Enforcement Officer for Clovis City): 559-325-2386
Simone Cranston-Rhodes has been a tenant advocate since 2013. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org