By Angela Whitney
If you have ever rented a property here or anywhere, then you know the basic routine. You come check out the property beforehand, then, if you like it, you submit an application and the landlord runs a credit check. If the landlord likes you, you pay your security deposit and first month’s rent and get the keys. One month in when the toilet breaks or you find roaches crawling out of your cupboards, you call the landlord. You know your rights, of course, and you know that one of the main benefits of renting is that your landlord is legally obligated to maintain the property to certain standards of habitability.
Now imagine this. You place that call to the landlord, but the phone rings endlessly with no answering machine. Two days later when you finally get ahold of someone, they set up an appointment with you to come next week. You have to miss work to keep the appointment but you figure you might as well because you can’t live like this forever. You call in sick the day of the appointment, but the maintenance guy never comes.
When you call the landlord again, he claims that the maintenance guy came out but no one was home. You know you were home because you were on the couch all day binge watching Netflix and waiting for the doorbell to ring. The only time you got up was to relieve yourself in the bucket you are now using as a toilet. Now repeat that scenario a couple of times over, and you are starting to wonder if you should move. Then you realize that you have missed so much work that you don’t have enough for a security deposit on a new place. Your landlord refuses to give you back your security deposit, claiming you caused the toilet and the roach problem. What do you do?
The problems that many Fresno families face are much more severe. The above scenario is a mild and slightly parodied version of what happens to families and individuals in Fresno every day. Fresno’s code enforcement system is broken and toothless; for decades, it has permitted unethical profiteers to buy up Fresno’s rental market and turn a profit by not maintaining their properties. These slumlords intentionally prey on people who cannot or will not speak up for themselves, therefore enabling them to continue their practices in obscurity.
No More Slumlords, an all-volunteer grassroots community group, was formed to take what was once in the darkness and expose it to the light. Our mission is to expose the practices of slumlords and the effect they have on our city and its residents. We have spent years collecting the stories of hundreds of residents throughout Fresno and documenting the conditions of their homes.
The stories we have heard and the conditions we have witnessed with our own eyes are appalling. There are 509,000 residents in our city, and about 52% of those are renters. Fresno’s rental market is saturated with properties owned by slumlords; one of the largest slumlords we have documented owns more than 4,000 properties in Fresno alone.
Renters of these properties face conditions such as insect infestations; broken heaters, water heaters and stoves; mold; crumbling walls or stairwells; and dangerous debris in their yards. I visited an apartment complex in Fresno City Council District 7 where I met a young single mother living with her two children. Her two-year-old son was covered in insect bites, and she explained to me that the one bedroom in the apartment was so infested with bedbugs that she would not let her children go in there. She showed me the mattress on the living room floor that she shared with her two boys.
Many of the residents in the same complex were afraid to talk to me for fear of being evicted. (Retaliatory eviction is illegal but that does not stop slumlords from doing it.) When I finally did find someone else to talk to me, I was told that the property owner had someone come out to spray for bugs six months earlier but that all of the dogs in the complex had gotten sick and died shortly thereafter.
There are a hundred other stories just like that one. The conditions families face have negative effects on both their physical and mental health. Health problems such as asthma and injuries related to the dangerous conditions of the home are common. The stress of living in a slumlord property can make it difficult for a family to cope without their basic needs being met.
Another cost is to the neighborhoods in which these properties sit. When slumlords allow their properties to decline both inwardly and outwardly, property values in the neighborhood also decline. Slumlords who refuse to supervise and manage their properties allow criminal elements to take over, which discourages responsible residents from buying or renting in the neighborhood. This creates an endless cycle of decay and decline that, over the years, has caused some neighborhoods in Fresno to
be isolated from social services and the city’s attention.
Whether or not the city acknowledges the problems that slumlords create, the city and its taxpayers are still paying the cost. Slumlord properties are known to have gas leaks, hazardous water heaters, faulty wiring, exploding outlets and all of this this leads to more fires in our city. There are also more emergency calls for services in neighborhoods with many slumlord properties. All of this is pushing already stretched city services to the limits.
The cost is too high not to act. The slumlord industry in Fresno is the result of bad policy. Fresno’s code enforcement department, the department responsible to hold property owners accountable for their actions, has not been effectively enforcing city code for the past 40 years. No More Slumlords has recently launched the #ReclaimFresno campaign asking for the Fresno City Council and the mayor to take a unified stance against Fresno’s slumlord industry. We are calling on Fresno residents to join the movement against slumlords. We need businesses, churches, community organizations and responsible property owners to hold their city officials accountable. The time for change is now. Together, we can Reclaim Fresno from slumlords.
Angela Whitney is an American humanics scholar at Fresno State. For more information regarding this issue, visit www.nomoreslumlords. org and www.tenantstogether.org.