By Clayton Whited, Omar Ruiz, Juanita Perez and Patricia Sifuentes
Blight to Light is a cooperative effort involving Fresno State students, community members, city officials and property owners to identify, document, track and bring awareness to the public of the impact of blighted, abandoned properties in Fresno. Local community organizations, including Faith in Community, the Lowell Neighborhood Association and Union de Familias, Lowell Community Development Corporation, the Fresno State Sociology Department and Humanics Program, Building Healthy Communities (BHC), Tenants Together and No More Slumlords have worked together to shed light on the major issue of blight.
Blighted and vacant properties diminish property values, property taxes, public school funding and the overall health and safety of not just the affected neighborhood but the city as a whole. The negative effects of blight hinder effective and healthy development in Fresno today. The existing code and citations for violations of the municipal code are not being enforced. By not holding accountable those responsible for the blighted properties or enforcing specific consequences, such as criminal prosecution or receivership, this persistent issue has become a long-term crisis and demands a response.
In April 2014, students at Fresno State canvassed neighborhoods in multiple City Council districts and found more than 250 homes in violation of multiple municipal codes. This is by no means a comprehensive listing, but just based on these properties, the impact both fiscally and socially is staggering and in dire need of attention. Ongoing cooperative and collaborative efforts seek to bring the severity and the gravity of the issue of blight into the light of the public.
Fresno Municipal Code Primer
Blight is defined by the Fresno Municipal Code (FMC) as follows:
A vacant residential, commercial, or industrial building and all yards surrounding the building that reduces the aesthetic appearance of its neighborhood, area or district, is offensive to the senses, or is detrimental to nearby property or property values. A blighted building includes a vacant building and the yards surrounding the building that are not being actively maintained, or actively monitored, or actively secured. To actively maintain, monitor, and secure a vacant building, the owner or his or her agent must comply with all sections of this article and do all of the following: maintain Yards, life and healthy, maintain exterior of building including paint and finishes, Remove trash within 72 hours, maintain building with all state and city codes, regulations and permits take all reasonable steps to prevent illegal or criminal activity on premises, secure the property: replacing broken windows or doors. Boarding up is a “disfavored technique”; remove all Graffiti within 48 hours. (FMC 10-603. C).
Framing the Issue of Blight
The more than 250 houses in violation of municipal codes ranged from vacant and boarded up to blighted. Due to the language of the current municipal code, it can be difficult to assess a vacant property in compliance with the code. Thus, some reform of the code is necessary to effectively determine and address violations.
Violations of existing municipal codes allow the issue of blight to quickly seep into other aspects of the overall well-being of the citizens of Fresno, and the City of Fresno is left with the cost of “securing the building” and “maintaining the property.” Uncollected fines from the citations add to these “costs.” For example, if the minimum $1,000 fine for these 250 houses were collected, that would deter blight and provide the city with $250,000 to use toward enforcing the code more effectively. Of the 250 properties documented thus far, approximately 90% are owned by a single property owner, JD Homes.
Many of these vacant homes are claimed to be “temporarily” boarded up, which, according to the current Fresno Municipal Code—unlike many other municipalities—would not be a violation; however, a property owner is currently required to issue a “Vacant Building Plan” when boarding up a property (FMC 11-335). Unfortunately, many property owners have not submitted the required plan, and due to budget and staff reductions in the City of Fresno’s Code Enforcement Division, this requirement is not consistently enforced.
It is important to note here that, in the summer of 2013, the Fresno City Council cut its budget by eliminating the employment of a number of city workers, many of whom worked in Code Enforcement. Had the city maintained staffing for Code Enforcement, allowing for the enforcement of code violations and collected the aforementioned fees of at least $250,000, the city would be able to address the issue of blight (and the associated costs) (Gene Haagenson, ABC30News, June 22, 2013:
By laying off those employees, you are cutting off those services that, for example, code enforcement is one of the big ones we utilize, southwest, southeast, south central Fresno High, all those are ones that have a need for code enforcement. (Interview with Fresno City Council Member Sal Quintero)
Finally, the current process for temporarily boarding a vacant building does not specify a specific “standard,” and the code is vague and does not define “temporary.” Some residents reported having issued complaints about properties that have been vacant for years. The Fresno Municipal Code needs to develop a standard for “securing a vacant building” and define “temporary” as a specific length of time so that violators can be cited before a property becomes a public nuisance or danger.
The Cost of Blight
Two costs of blight—direct and indirect—affect the safety and value of the property in a harmful way. Direct costs to taxpayers include the cost of city code enforcement, police and fire department services that are devoted to these blighted properties. A decline of property values over time due to blighted properties and a decline in public safety directly affect property owners and residents in the blighted neighborhoods. Those declining property values result in a declining tax base affecting the quality of services.
Indirect costs of blighted properties are associated with a social theory known as the broken windows theory. Research findings leading to the development of the broken windows theory indicate that neighborhoods in disrepair invite illicit activity. “Blight was regarded as a set of indicators that were based on perceived neighborhood disorder, defined as ‘lack of order and social control in the community’” (Ross & Mirowsky, 1999).
A shadow is cast on these communities and their residents, resulting in a perception that the inhabitants are criminal or do not care about their community. Gabriel Pacheco, a Fresno resident, was interviewed at the Community Forum on Blight organized by Faith in Community on Sept. 20 at Kirk Elementary: “People come out and say they are fixing it, but they don’t really do anything. It’s hard because people judge our community when they see the place and think we don’t care about our neighborhood when we really do.”
The children of these neighborhoods and the surrounding schools are negatively affected as well. These neglected properties, sometimes referred to as “abandominiums,” create a danger zone in the community by attracting criminal activity. The lack of safety in the neighborhood puts added stress and anxiety on the child, making productive learning difficult. The vice principal of Kirk Elementary (in southwest Fresno) shared the story of one male student harassed by a group loitering at a blighted property and afraid to walk home from school. These individuals yelled out to him, “Hey white boy, come over here—I’ve got something to show you,” and the young boy just ran home (Rory Appleton, Fresno Bee, Sept. 20, 2014).
Be Part of the Solution
Part of the solution to blight involves a cooperative effort of Fresno State students, community benefit organizations, residents, city officials and property owners to identify the blight in our city and report it. Faith in Community has launched a successful social media campaign, posting images of blight in Fresno in a campaign titled #OneHealthyFresno, which is part of a broader Building Healthy Communities effort to bring greater attention to south Fresno neighborhoods left behind for too long.
The campaign posts an image of a blighted property daily to raise awareness on the issue. The photos of the 100 properties seen here have been tweeted by Faith in Community over the past 100 days and are from the student canvassing efforts in April 2014. Bryson White, an organizer with Faith in Community, said, “We are trying to build a power base led by residents and people of faith to disrupt politics as usual in Fresno.”
Fresno State students are continuing their canvassing efforts while adding to a growing database of cases of vacant and blighted properties. This database is linked to a digital mapping tool that updates daily to track the severity and concentration of blight in the city of Fresno in an interactive map. This database and mapping tool is spearheaded by a sociology student from Fresno State, with guidance and cooperation of dedicated community leaders, faculty, students and community members. This system is an open source system that can operate at little to no cost and is being used in the field to document blight by identifying blight, capturing images of each property, and then incorporating the images and property status into the interactive map.
Students are bringing attention to blight in Fresno through the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Photobucket and Instagram to shed light on blight in Fresno (see www.facebook.com/blight.light.5, http://instagram.com/blight_2_light_fresno and https://twitter.com/blighttolight). This cooperative effort is a true example of the strength of community-based participatory research being applied to social change and justice in Fresno.
Fresno State students have written letters to the Fresno Bee and Fresno City Council members to bring light to this public issue:
The City of Fresno has a blemish and not a lot of attention is given to it. Fresno is known for having high homeless, crime and poverty rates, and if you think that this is the blemish I am speaking of, you’re wrong…There’s another issue in Fresno that has not been reviewed in detail, blight…The city’s problems are every citizen’s problems, including our City Council. Not a lot has been or can be done until our leaders recognize what a big blemish we have on our hands. (Joel Aguilera, Fresno Bee, Oct. 11, 2014)
An Engaged Community
This solution has been envisioned to foster involvement and action from Fresno residents as well. Community forums (starting with the first one at Kirk Elementary in September 2014) will be conducted to raise awareness of this issue and to seek out community involvement and testimony regarding this ever-increasing issue. A listening session in which community members will be able to voice their concerns and opinions on the issue of abandoned and blighted properties is being proposed as well.
A Mayoral-Council Code Enforcement Task Force has been formed by the City of Fresno and includes community leaders, City Council members, Fresno State faculty and business leaders to address the issue and attempt to find a means to effectively work toward a healthier and safer Fresno.
Using the Blight Report Hotline (559-473-1427), community members can anonymously report blight. This report is then added to a growing database collected and created though Blight to Light’s canvassing efforts. These documented properties are then included in an online map showing the status of a property (Occupied, Vacant, Public Nuisance or Blight), ownership and current pictures—all viewable by the public. This map and the images will be combined with existing efforts to bring awareness to this issue and actively document the severity of the issue in the city.
Seeking Your Involvement
Community members can follow these three steps to identify a home that is, in fact, a blighted property.
- See It: Vacant, boarded up, non-maintained, graffiti, trash, broken windows/doors, illegal activity or squatters
- Investigate: If someone is in danger, call 911. If there is a “No Trespassing” sign outside the home and/or it’s legally occupied, leave it.
- Call It In: Call 559-473-1427 to report blight anonymously. Leave a message with the address: street number, city, state and Zip code (if possible). Please also include the nearest cross street.
Addressing the issue of blight in Fresno will take efforts from all sectors, including students, community members, city officials and property owners.
Community members are invited to attend a meeting and tour of abandoned and blighted properties that’s been tentatively set for Dec. 2 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Yokomi Elementary School (2323 E. McKenzie Ave.).
Clayton Whited (Sociology; firstname.lastname@example.org), Omar Ruiz (Sociology; email@example.com), Juanita Perez (Philosophy-Pre-Law/Humanics; firstname.lastname@example.org) and Patricia Sifuentes (Sociology; email@example.com) are undergraduates at Fresno State.