By Simone Cranston-Rhodes
It is the day before Thanksgiving, and I am bundled up against the cold as I walk around Summerset apartments with my companion Gone Nanthadeth. Many of us will be thankful this holiday for our health, a big meal and to be surrounded by family. But for Nanthadeth just having heat would be enough.
As of Nov. 25, there were more than 1,000 tenants living in central Fresno without access to gas. I am visiting the homes of the many Laotian and Hmong refugee families to help document the many code violations that are happening in these homes.
Almost every home has a tiny garden in their front yard; the home of Kitty and her one-year-old daughter has an innovative fountain with two large Koi fish in it. I discover what it is like to be living without heat, a working stove or hot water. Many people gather around a small fire outside, and few have been provided with a space heater or hot plates to make food with.
The policies that have led to this level of government failure are shameful. This will surely not be the last time something like this will happen, and if the City of Fresno does not change the way it handles enforcing housing code more lives will be affected.
Nanthadeth, like many of the tenants at Summerset Apartments, is a refugee from Laos. Nanthadeth’s family sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and fought alongside U.S. soldiers. The families that live at these apartments have crossed and battled war zones and natural barriers such as raging rivers to make their way to relief in the United States.
Like homeless veterans, these citizens deserve more than what we are providing. But why do these people keep falling through the cracks? “This is an opportunity for us to say no more, we’re going to take good care of them, we’re not going to bounce them around and we’re going to make sure that their needs are met,” said Fresno City Council Member Clint Olivier. “Because that’s what we’re about here in Fresno, and in California, and in the United States.”
If our elected officials truly believe that we should take care of our people, then shouldn’t they be working on implementing programs that institutionally prevent things like this from happening?
We should not be relying on nonprofits and charities to clean up the mess created by Fresno’s failed code enforcement program. It should never have gotten to this point. After the last eight years of Mayor Ashley Swearengin repeatedly providing less and less funds to the Code Enforcement Department, we are finally starting to see the consequences of a defunded code program. And surely this will not be the last time Fresno citizens will pay the price.
During a press conference later this day that is attended by Mayor Swearengin, City Manager Bruce Rudd and City Council Member Olivier, they ask many questions. Like when will the owner fix this? Who (and how much) have different churches, nonprofits and other organizations helped the tenants? The question not asked is what failure happened on the part of the city to allow it to get to this point?
Mayor Swearengin says this is the first time in her seven years as mayor that she has had to declare a state of emergency. As thousands of dollars come in, hot food prepared each day and hot water provided by churches, it is clear this is no small matter.
Swearengin admits in her press conference that “this could happen in dozens of other apartments in Fresno. It is absolutely true we need more code enforcement.”
Why then has there been drastic cuts to the Code Enforcement Department during her time in office? During the last eight years, code enforcement has gone from a large department with more than 40 officers covering a variety of different specialty jobs to a small department with eight employees and two job openings.
It did not happen overnight, but Fresno has now seen the devastating effects of what happens when housing regulations and laws go unchecked. Not because there are not laws or codes in place, but because we no longer have the means to enforce them.
Simone Cranston-Rhodes is the political organizer at the Fresno Teachers Association. Contact her at simonecranstonrhodesfta@ outlook.com.