By Hannah Brandt
It is December 8, 2016. A woman says she has been living without heat for weeks, harassed by a landlord who is evicting her even though she pays her rent. Leticia Valencia, a Fresno State student working with Faith in the Valley, declares that a baseline standard should be established and begs the council to vote on a proposal to combat substandard housing through routine interior inspections. The plan was put together by the code enforcement task force created last year by Mayor Ashley Swearengin. A man is blunt, “We gave consideration to property owners due to the holidays. Tenants also celebrate Christmas and want to do so without roaches crawling on their children.”
Esther Delahay, Executive Director of the Lowell Community Development Corporation, which promotes development in the struggling Lowell area between downtown and the Tower District, says the organization has had six tenant education workshops over the last few months. They found that 25 percent of attendees were living with electricity problems, 25 percent had no smoke detectors, and a large percentage were living in substandard housing. She says she is also a property owner herself and this is a moderate proposal that is not punitive to landlords who follow the rules.
The public comment period of the council meeting goes on like this for several hours, with residents giving testimonies and activists pointing to ten years of discussion and research on the issue in the city of Fresno. When council speaker, Sal Quintero assures the public that the members understand the problem, Leticia Valencia asks “If you all understand the issue of substandard housing, why are we still here just talking about it?” She also queries whether council members plan to wait until Fresno experiences a tragedy like Oakland where a fire in a warehouse art space killed 36 people last month.
Members of the clergy also speak out, including Steve Ratzlaff, a minister at Mennonite Community Church. He calls the situation “a moral crisis” and urges the proposed inspection program to be implemented in December. “It is only a sign of basic human dignity to make sure people have a warm roof over their heads.” Ratzlaff went on to say that the city had been let off the hook until the tragedy at Summerset. “We have no idea how many more Summersets are out there without code enforcement.”
Many point to the exposure of the conditions at Summerset Village Apartments as the catalyst for the community’s renewed passion about slumlords and their prevalence in Fresno. In the fall of 2015, an investigative report by the Fresno Bee called Living in Misery uncovered the situation there and revealed that the power had been shut off for weeks due to faulty wiring. A number of residents had already been without heat for months and one elderly tenant froze to death.
Summerset is owned by a man in Santa Barbara who has expensive properties in the Bay Area, and holdings here in Fresno. The Bee’s report highlighted the severity of the conditions in substandard housing, the problems created by the pervasiveness of out of town owners, and the failure of the city to maintain code enforcement. Advocacy organizations like Tenants Together and No More Slumlords have been documenting these realities and Community Alliance has been publishing them for years. We will continue to do so.
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), who is also a Kingsburg physician, says he was shocked to see the conditions people were living in when he toured Fresno properties in November. As a doctor, he has seen how people’s health deteriorates when their homes are without proper ventilation and heat, filled with mold and vermin. Among other problems, it increases the occurrence and severity of asthma, a malady already far too common in the Valley due to poor air quality. Toxic air is more prominent in areas with substandard housing.
Daniel O’Connell, chair of the Central Valley Partnership, says Fresno has failed to uphold Gandhi’s belief that “the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.” It also brings to mind the words of health care worker and humanitarian Paul Farmer, “The idea that some lives matter more is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
Property owners claim the inspection regulations would be a hardship. One speaks of the fact that he already employs outside consultants, at great cost to himself, to inspect his properties. For the city to add regulators with lower standards would be an unnecessary burden. He also faults the lack of affordable housing in Fresno as the greater problem.
Referred to as the next Summerset, many at the meeting have pointed to life at Hotel California, a shabby motel where long term tenants are living without heat or smoke detectors. Property owners are quick to say that since it is not officially a housing complex, the proposed ordinance would not address any code violations occurring there.
Fresno State Professor Matthew Jendian, who worked in housing for ten years, including with former Mayor Alan Autry, says “This is no longer an issue of what to do but how to do it. This has become a political issue. We are not going anywhere.” Echoing the building frustration in the room as the hours tick by without a vote, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Steve Whiler from Faith in the Valley calls the council out for the “lack of respect for people living through this” and for “hindering of democracy” by moving the meeting three times in 24 hours. A woman from the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability says she “Hears from residents every day with serious safety concerns and structural problems but many more are too afraid to speak up because they are threatened with eviction if they do.”
After all the gut-wrenching accounts, Fresno City Council ultimately did not take action. Rep. Clint Olivier (R) explained his hesitation by referencing a blight ordinance he says was hastily pushed through a year ago and had no teeth. It failed to prevent the fire at an abandoned building in southeast Fresno which killed five people.
Rep. Esmeralda Soria (D) and Rep. Oliver Baines (D) advocated calling a special session meeting a week later to prevent further delay. But it was determined that such a meeting would not be binding. Rep. Lee Brand (R) claimed the proposal was not strong enough and although the issue has long been discussed in the community, this proposal was new and needed work.
Given the large donations Rep. Brand received from housing developers during his recent campaign, many believe pleasing them is the real concern for the mayor-elect, not poor tenants. Many were also angry that Rep. Steve Brandau (R) refused to attend the meeting and look people in the eye after calling for its delay. It will not be on the agenda until February.
Dillon Savory, the head of the Central Labor Council called the situation “deplorable” and council’s failure to act on the problem “cowardly.” He challenged the city council members to enter these homes for themselves and said union members, including fire fighters, have pledged to stand with the community.
The following day, on December 9, the local tenant advocacy organization, No More Slumlords (nomoreslumlords.org) released the following public statement.
On Thursday, December 8, 2016 we expected to hear Fresno City Council finally take action on Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s rental inspection ordinance. Community leaders and residents were also present to witness this occasion. Unfortunately, to the dismay of everyone, City Council voted to delay the discussion and vote until next year. It is now scheduled for February 2, 2017. Many in the community expressed their disappointment and outrage at this last-minute decision. We are reaching out to our city council representatives to understand why they decided to delay the vote.
We believe that a rental inspection ordinance is necessary to dismantle Fresno’s slumlord industry. The Summerset Village Apartment crisis highlighted the urgency and immediate need to address the systemic injustice that many families face in our city. The community was expecting our city to act by the end of this year. Everything that the Mayor and the Code Enforcement Task Force worked on was leading up to Thursday’s City Council meeting. The community was ready, we were ready, but City Council was not.
We want to make it clear to our supporters that we do not believe that our Mayor or City Council desire to see families living in substandard housing. We believe that they care for the well-being of all residents. We also want to make it clear that the outrage and frustration by the community is justified. The community has dealt with this issue for decades and they were always ignored. When we started four years ago and reached out to our city council representatives, we were also initially ignored. At this very moment hundreds of families are suffering. Delays are unacceptable.
Next year we will have a new mayor and new city council representatives. Our hope is that we can continue to work with the new mayor and the new city council representatives. They have to prove to us that they are serious about tackling Fresno’s slumlord industry. City Council has stated that the rental inspection ordinance will come before them on February 2, 2017. We will hold them to their word.
At some point in the council meeting, it was mentioned that developers from outside the Valley know that the city of Fresno does not enforce codes and invest here specifically to avoid penalties they would incur elsewhere. If true, this means Fresno has a statewide reputation of not taking care of its people. The city needs to stop being the butt of jokes. If we had proper health and safety protections in rental housing it would go a long way to changing that reality.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance.