By Hannah Brandt and Santy Phaphol
It is the day before Thanksgiving and two former Roosevelt High classmates are trudging through soggy grass at Summerset Apartments in south central Fresno. Rusted gates encompass the grounds of the 200- unit complex where estimates have varied that hundreds to as many as 2,000 people have called these apartments home. By the time we arrive, some have already fled the slum conditions. The owner of the apartments, Chris Henry, lives in Santa Barbara and claims to have been unaware of the problems at his property until November.
Santy Paphol and I are there to partly help the three lawyers representing the tenants gain interview accounts and photographic evidence of the conditions at Summerset. Even from the street, one can see broken ventilation units teetering precariously, cracked windows held up with packing tape and plastic, and apartment numbers written in crayon because the metal ones have fallen and were never replaced. This is what life has been for so many here: a series of broken and never fixed appliances, leaking faucets, infestation of insects and rodents, and eventually a lack of working heat and hot water. Several say their heaters have never worked since they moved in.
Over the course of an afternoon, we speak to residents in about 35 studio units. They tell us they pay $475 for a studio there. Most of the people we talk to are a single man or woman or a couple. Only one family was hunkered down in the small living space, which includes a front room (usually used as a bedroom, sometimes partly sectioned off with a curtain for privacy), a kitchen, a bathroom and a hallway space with a large closet. The family we met had small children sleeping in that space.
Most of the residents are of Southeast Asian background. Most are Laotian, and some do not speak English or are more comfortable speaking to Santy who is fluent in Lao. Few are young. Most are elderly and some are disabled. One man with a huge gash in his front window is in a wheelchair. A young couple struggling to live on their own again after taking care of ill family members have a Christmas tree up. Fly traps covered in bugs hang just above the festive pine needles. The young man plays video games in what would be a cozy apartment if not for the bathtub faucet gushing water, mold covering the bathroom floor and a spider’s nest in the medicine cabinet.
Another woman, originally from the Philippines, shows us the memo to tenants from the property manager Jerry Vang, stating that PG&E services would be shut off due to concern about gas leaks. Most residents said they were unaware there were such severe problems with the units until after they moved in and were put on a lease agreement for a year.
As we meander from unit to unit, we have to sprint over deep trenches dug in the front yards of homes. It took 19 days for the repair crews to actually begin work on the gas line. That was 19 days where small children could have fallen in open tunnels on ground they play on and frail, elderly or disabled could trip and fall or get wheelchairs caught. Fortunately, none of that seems to have happened. Still, it is expected to take until Christmas before the repairs are finished. The code violations keep piling up, and the city has demanded that Henry cover the cost of reconstruction. It will remain to be seen whether the city’s team of new code enforcement officers follows through on ensuring Fresno residents are protected.
While at Summerset, Santy and I run into representatives from the Fresno Housing Authority (FHA), who tell us the FHA is pulling the Section 8 funding for its residents because they consider the property condemned. They are giving tenants Section 8 vouchers to use at other properties if they relocate. We did not see a list of properties, but we were told residents have three months to use the vouchers. Given the limited resources of these individuals, that is not much time. Meanwhile, the temperature keeps dropping, often into the 20s.
PG&E reports it was contacted Nov. 12 about the possibility of a gas leak at Summerset. According to the Fresno Bee Editorial Board, since 1992 there has been a history of fire at Summerset, as well as a lack of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detection units. Henry took over ownership of the property in 1999. Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM), which is located directly across the street, has been the central coordinating point for relief. Donations made to the organization have been used to provide portable space heaters to residents still living at Summerset. For a week or so, volunteers from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno were taking residents to the gym at San Joaquin Memorial high school to take warm showers.
According to an interview with ABC 30 News on Nov. 26, property owner Henry has matched PG&E’s $25,000 to cover the costs until the gas line is repaired. Zach Darrah, director of FIRM, told the news station he does not accept Henry’s defense of ignorance about the problems at the complex. According to a Dec. 1 interview, the owner said he is not collecting rent for that month. This is because, according to California law, hot water and heater are required to be provided to all tenants. Tenants cannot be evicted for failing to pay rent if these basic amenities are not available.
The long list of problems we jotted down as we spoke to residents lays bare the harsh and often disgusting reality residents of Summerset Apartments endure. Photos taken by volunteers coordinated at FIRM and firsthand accounts of residents were presented at a press conference and before the City Council.
As of Dec. 3, 100 Summerset tenants had joined a lawsuit against the property owner, Henry. The three lawyers representing the residents allege that Henry has been using money procured for rent at Summerset to fund his swanky restaurant in the Bay Area.
One question many concerned Fresnans have is, how many other south Fresno properties—from southeast to southwest—are similarly dilapidated and dangerous, with comparably vulnerable low-income residents of color? According to Tenants Together and other housing advocacy organizations, as well as citizens who have experienced these concerns, there are many.
A sampling of the concerns we encountered is as follows:
A, B, C–mold along gutter and rooftop, no heat from wall furnace, not all electric stove burners work
D—mold in bathroom and along gutter top
E—mold in bathroom and along roof area
A, B—mold in bathroom and edge of gutter top area, no heat from wall furnace, rats, roaches
C, D, E—
A, B, C—electric stove burner doesn’t work, kitchen light switch doesn’t work, mold in bathroom
D— rats, roaches, no heat from furnace, mold in bathroom, not all stovetop burners working
A, B, C—Charlie Heaven (disabled resident)
D, E—no heat from furnace, mold
A, B—mold, rats, roaches, wall furnace doesn’t work
C—disabled resident (rats, mold)
D—three flytraps for bugs in house completely covered, roaches, rats, mold, severely leaking shower faucet
A—rats and dead cats falling from the stove hood into his unit
Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or hrbananah@gmail. com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @HannahBP2. Santy Paphol xxx.
Santy Phaphol is a member of Lao Dhamma Sacca temple who has worked for several non-profits in Fresno. Contact her at sphaphol@ yahoo.com