State

Apartments crawling with mice, roaches but fearful tenants stay quiet

Apartment family lives with roaches, mice, mold and neglect. Why will no one help?

Luis Decubas, his wife and children live in a southeast Fresno apartment that is infested with roaches and mice. He says he has called his landlord and city government but the conditions persist.
Up Next
Luis Decubas, his wife and children live in a southeast Fresno apartment that is infested with roaches and mice. He says he has called his landlord and city government but the conditions persist.

Luis Decubas keeps a tightly rolled pack of 17 mice in his freezer. It’s proof of the pests contaminating the three-bedroom apartment in southeast Fresno that he shares with his wife and four children.

When he opens a kitchen cabinet, dozens of cockroaches fly out. Sometimes when the family wakes up at night, they can feel cockroaches tickling the inside of their ears.

The $650-a-month apartment has other problems: exposed wires, holes in walls, faulty electric outlets, mold.

“We shouldn’t be living like this,” says Decubas, 47.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Their apartment is not an isolated case. Thousands of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people live in unhealthy and unsafe apartments. They stay silent because they fear being evicted or deported, and they continue to live in misery.

Fill out our survey to share your housing issues with us.

City officials knew for decades about problems with low-income housing. Property owners faced few repercussions from a city still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession that slashed deeply into code enforcement. But by refusing to put teeth into inspections and enforcement efforts, the city failed to protect many of its most at-risk citizens.

Fresno’s low-income housing crisis was thrust into the spotlight last November with the news that a central Fresno apartment complex, home to 1,000 people, had neither heat nor hot water. Residents couldn’t cook or keep their apartments warm at the coldest part of autumn. By the time officials learned about the gas line closure, tenants at Summerset Village Apartments had been cold and hungry for a week. One elderly tenant would later die of respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia.

The conditions at Summerset spurred The Bee to focus on substandard housing in Fresno. A four-month investigation by The Bee found that making Fresno apartments livable and safe was a very low priority for landlords and government officials. The Bee investigation also found:

▪ Some enforcement cases were closed before repairs were completed.

▪ There has never been a criminal consequence for landlords renting substandard apartments.

▪ In some apartments, toilets regularly overflow, soaking carpets with sewage.

▪ Rotted ceilings from water leaks were left unrepaired at many apartments.

▪ Ovens and portable heaters were the main source of heat in some apartments.

▪ Routine interior inspections, considered best practices in many cities, are not performed in Fresno.

City officials offer excuses for not moving aggressively to protect residents. The system is decidedly tilted in favor of landlords. When they appeal city fines, for example, judgments usually benefit them.

 

There have been some recent changes. Mayor Ashley Swearengin created a city task force 18 months ago, and City Manager Bruce Rudd created an enforcement strike force late last year. But the mayor and city manager concede it could take five years to turn things around – and at least one of them won’t be on the job to see it through.

I wished that I could tell the public that this is the only such property in Fresno, that it’s a tragedy and we’ve got the situation under control.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin

Some housing advocates question whether the city’s latest efforts will make a difference, especially since prior campaigns have failed.

“For the current administration, it’s too little, too late,” says Sergio Cortes with No More Slumlords, a volunteer advocacy group.

Meanwhile, Fresno is overrun with dilapidated apartment complexes like Summerset, places just one broken pipe away from families going without heat.

Few options for the poor

Poverty drives many families into substandard housing in Fresno, one of the poorest cities in the nation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says 7.7 million very low-income families nationwide pay more than half of their income for rent and live in substandard housing conditions.

More than 38,000 Fresno renters are categorized as very low-income, with annual household incomes of $28,950 or less. Of them, 62 percent are extremely low-income, with $24,250 or less, according to the draft 2015-23 Fresno Housing Element, the city’s blueprint for future residential growth.

Density of rental units in Fresno

Families in Fresno wait years to get into affordable public housing developments or for federal subsidies to help pay rent. In Fresno County, more than 75,000 people are waiting for affordable housing with the Fresno Housing Authority, which has space for 12,000. The Housing Choice Voucher program, previously known as Section 8, has 45,000 people on its waitlist – 3 1/2 times the number of people who have vouchers now.

Most public and voucher housing is better-maintained because it’s routinely inspected. But the majority of renters do not live in federally subsidized apartments, and routine inspections of their units aren’t mandatory. City code enforcers arrive only after getting calls alerting them to problems. And the people most directly affected by substandard housing are the ones least likely to report it.

 

City leaders were surprised that code enforcement was not bombarded by complaints from cold and weary tenants at Summerset. Sophia DeWitt, a longtime advocate for refugees who worked at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries from 2003 to 2014, was not. There is a cultural basis for remaining silent, she says.

“Folks who are refugees and fled their government because they were in danger of being killed or physically harmed will really do a lot of things to not have to speak up or complain or do anything to any kind of authority figure,” she says.

While investigating substandard housing in Fresno, Bee reporters knocked on dozens of doors over the course of four months. Of the tenants who answered, most declined to give their names or be photographed. When asked whether they report housing violations, many tenants say they complain to their landlords but not to code enforcement. One woman explained what stopped her from calling: “I felt it would be a waste of time. I heard the city doesn’t do anything.”

A woman talks about the problems in her run-down Fresno apartment. The woman, whose identity is being concealed because she fears for her safety and that of her family. She said her unit has a rodent infestation and that the pest get into the pant

Many of Fresno’s low-income tenants are Hispanic, black or Southeast Asian and have limited English and education. Some are in the country without documentation. Refugees and undocumented immigrants represent a segment of the population vulnerable to abuses, says Dvera Saxton, assistant professor of anthropology at Fresno State.

Saxton, who has done social science research with farmworkers and low-income agricultural communities, says poor people and even those slightly better off begin to accept substandard housing as “logical, normal or inevitable.”

It just gets me so mad

Luis Decubas, tenant

Jose Lopez, a 22-year-old resident of central Fresno’s Lowell neighborhood, used to think there was nothing he could do to get his landlord to fix long-standing issues at the apartment he has shared with his parents for more than 10 years. It had cockroaches, rats, cracks in the bathtub and mold. The water heater shut off every now and then. The heater never worked.

His farmworker parents didn’t complain – they knew something was wrong, but they feared retaliation.

Early last year, Lopez came across a post on Facebook by Tenants Together, a statewide nonprofit renters’ rights organization. He researched state and local housing codes, told his landlord things needed to change and then called code enforcement when the landlord was not responsive. He says code enforcement also was unresponsive until City Council Member Clint Olivier and others heard him speak at a community meeting and intervened.

“This is the first time that we’ve had heat in the apartment,” Lopez says. “Now we have cabinets that close, just basic things. That’s all I wanted for my family was at least something decent.”

Lopez says tenants like him and his parents do need to know their rights, but they shouldn’t need outside help to get problems fixed.

“Here’s where I’m at fault: I just didn’t get informed sooner,” Lopez says. “They just accepted it. But we shouldn’t just accept it.”

Code enforcement weaknesses

Under state law, a dwelling may be considered uninhabitable if it has problems such as broken windows, failed plumbing, no running water and holes in the walls. Buildings must be sanitary.

Former Mayor Alan Autry says requiring property owners to provide safe and habitable housing is not asking for too much.

“You’re not expecting people to go in and make an apartment a Taj Mahal, but you sure can make sure the roofs don’t leak, that there’s not a fire hazard and that you don’t fall through the floor,” says Autry, whose administration attempted to address substandard housing.

Listen, through an interpreter, to the story of Tong Cha, whose 78-year-old husband died of respiratory failure and pneumonia. Cha wrapped Her Xa Lor in blankets in their unit at Summerset Village Apartments, which had no heat for a month because

If landlords aren’t willing to maintain livable apartments, “they shouldn’t be purchasing these properties,” says Christina Hathaway, a supervising attorney for Central California Legal Services in Fresno. The agency provides legal services to low-income individuals.

Sometimes complaints can be resolved with a phone call from a tenant or a letter, Hathaway says, but “some landlords just don’t care.”

You’re not expecting people to go in and make an apartment a Taj Mahal, but you sure can make sure the roofs don’t leak, that there’s not a fire hazard and that you don’t fall through the floor.

Alan Autry, former Fresno mayor

Tenant advocates say the city does not go after repeat violators or issue enough fines to recoup more of the millions of dollars it spends on enforcement each year. They have also long complained about Fresno’s dwindling code enforcement team, which went from 86 positions in 2006 to a low of 29 in 2014. The department added 10 positions this year for a total of 40.

The city has no plans to build its code force back up to pre-recession levels but instead is changing its approach to enforcement, Rudd says.

“When we had the heyday of code enforcement  was there any tangible change in these properties?” he says. “The reality is we’re not going to be able to hire that many code enforcement officers back, and I’m not convinced it’s the right way to use resources.”

Before the recession, the Fresno Police Department had officers working directly with code enforcement. Staffing cutbacks have limited those efforts, Chief Jerry Dyer says.

Fresno code enforcement officers inspect an apartment complex at 4551 E. Clay Ave. for possible code violations in 2016. The complex was singled out because it has had a high volume of police and fire calls. In 2016, Former Fresno city manager Bru

The Fresno Fire Department faces similar limitations, Chief Kerri Donis says. The department conducts annual inspections of multifamily housing, looking for fire hazards and focusing on exteriors and common areas such as laundries.

Firefighters or fire inspectors can randomly knock on doors and ask to check smoke alarms and electrical wiring, but that doesn’t happen often.

Fire Department spokesman Hector Vasquez did inspections as part of his job for nine years. He says firefighters aren’t trained to report nonemergency housing conditions to the city.

“If we see a sagging roof or something like that, we might talk to the manager about it,” he says, “but we won’t call code enforcement.”

Donis, however, says fire inspectors do contact code enforcers when they see violations that need follow-up.

 

Close to uninhabitable

When Decubas and his family – wife Patricia Hill and their four children ages 3 to 15 – moved five years ago into their southeast Fresno apartment, they never got a walk-through inspection, he says. They had to paint the dirty walls themselves.

He moves the fridge and stove once a month to sweep up hundreds of cockroach skins. His wife uses bleach, soap and water to wipe the cupboards. When they warm food in the microwave, cockroaches inside the unit’s walls make popping noises as they explode.

“It just gets me so mad,” Decubas says. The owners are “not worried about people’s health or the kids. They just want to make their money.”

38,000Renters categorized as very low-income

Their 10-unit building at the end of a cul-de-sac at 2061 S. Hayston Ave. is well-known to city code inspectors.

According to documents obtained by The Bee, code inspectors have found hundreds of violations since 1996 at the Hayston Avenue property owned by Sunny and Cecilia Chan of Fresno. One code officer told the Chans in 2013 that he was “very close” to posting the property as uninhabitable, but he allowed it to remain open while repairs were made. In that case, the Chans paid $770 in fines.

Altogether, the Chans have paid the city $1,527 for code violations and staff time on four of 31 cases. Inspectors closed numerous cases before repairs were finished, and most were closed without fines, even though inspectors went back repeatedly to the complex for the same issues.

Cecilia Chan says she fired two previous on-site managers for failing to maintain the property. Her latest manager, hired in 2014, takes care of repairs promptly. Tenants who say they’ve reported problems to him that go unfixed are lying, she says. If the manager is unresponsive, tenants can call her.

Central Fresno apartment tenant Consuelo Yanez, speaking through an interpreter, says roaches and rats infest her unit. She also has received electric shocks from her faulty stove.

But Decubas says that when he called Chan directly, she asked how he got her number before hanging up.

During a dozen visits to the complex in February and March, Bee reporters saw patches of black mold on ceilings, kitchen stoves with damaged burners, water-damaged walls, leaky faucets, and walls with inoperable electrical outlets. All had roach and mouse infestations. There were piles of broken appliances, missing fire extinguishers, rickety stairs and leaky spigots outside the apartments.

Chan says the live-in manager told her that he would have the appliances recycled and that people steal the extinguishers. She says she gives money to tenants to buy rat poison, advises them only to eat in the kitchen and tells them to plug holes in walls.

“If they don’t keep clean and plug the hole, (mice and rats) always come back,” she says.

She says many things are out of her control, and if tenants are unhappy, they can move out.

“You pay $600 rent and you want a five-star hotel? Impossible.”

 
 

Strike team’s first target

The city filed its first civil suit against the owner of a substandard apartment complex in March during The Bee’s investigation. Officials asked the Fresno County Superior Court to force Guadalupe Fernandez of Tulare to fix dangerous conditions that code enforcement officers found during a January inspection. Fernandez owns a 15-unit complex on East Clay Avenue, just east of Highway 168.

Of the 11,500 code cases processed by the city of Fresno in fiscal year 2015, less than 16 percent were housing issues.

The apartments had a history of complaints. The city file on the property shows that on March 3, 2015, inspectors viewed rubbish and junk throughout the property, broken windows, damaged door jambs and leaking plumbing, and heard various tenant complaints. They then notified the owner that the whole complex would be inspected. City staffers made several repeat visits, but they did not conduct a unit-by-unit inspection that year.

After a tenant complained of no heat or hot water, inspectors returned in December and found additional problems. The next month, strike team inspectors found violations that included leaky pipes, broken appliances, bed bugs and no heat, forcing one family with young children to warm their apartment with a cooking stove.

Deborah Pico, 64, moved into the complex after her previous apartment and her truck were broken into four times. She likes the quiet area, but she has been frustrated by the apartment’s substandard conditions. She pays $550 in monthly rent for her one-bedroom apartment.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

On inspection day, her cracked kitchen faucet sprayed water everywhere. A plastic bin caught water leaking from a pipe under the sink. She had to reach into the tank to pull up the flapper to flush the toilet, which then took hours to refill. Cockroaches and mice scuttled around. Pico dusted mouse poop off her laptop on the kitchen table.

Repairs have been made since the inspection, Pico says. “I am very glad the city has come out to take the initiative to check these things out.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Fernandez, the 61-year-old complex owner, acknowledges he could have done a better job with upkeep. His intention when he bought the units 15 years ago from his now-deceased father-in-law was to give people “a clean place.”

He had started to repair units, putting new windows in the apartments closest to Olive Avenue and planning to work his way up to the front of the complex. But when he got sick four years ago, he hired someone else to manage it.

“That was one of my big mistakes,” Fernandez says. However, he says that he is responsible “because I’m the owner.”

Disaster before action

The city’s stepped-up code enforcement activities today are in sharp contrast to past practices. City employees had long known of ongoing problems at the Summerset complex, which houses mostly Southeast Asian refugees.

Sharon Stanley, who was executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries for many years, says she had many conversations with code enforcement staff about Summerset, which is across the street from the nonprofit.

Code enforcement workers sought to correct violations at Summerset, but the fines the city levied on owners of such complexes amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist, she says.

Stanley, who now lives in Washington, D.C., says owners “would make enough of an improvement to get code enforcement off their back, and inevitably it would repeat again, six months or nine months down the line. That repetition is what residents have had to struggle with over the years.”

City documents for the Summerset complex at 2103 N. Angus St. show 19 fires since 2000 and seven code enforcement cases in the 28 months before November’s gas outage. They include reports of broken sewer lines, insect infestation and leaky pipes causing mold. The files show that inspectors in one case did not return to see whether repairs were completed, and all the cases were closed without billing the owner, Marin County resident Chris Henry.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In November, Summerset’s property manager attempted unsuccessfully to repair old and leaky gas lines. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off the gas Nov. 12 because of safety concerns.

The Fresno Housing Authority had tenants in 23 Summerset apartments but was unaware of the complex’s overall condition. The authority’s inspectors were at Summerset on Oct. 21 to inspect those apartments and returned days before the gas was shut off to check repairs in units that had failed inspection. The gas was working in those apartments at that time.

The crisis at Summerset prompted Swearengin to declare a state of emergency while crews worked to restore services to the low-income residents. The complex has since undergone extensive renovations. About 150 current and former residents filed a lawsuit demanding the owner pay $3 million in damages.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The lawsuit was amended in March to include a wrongful death claim on behalf of the family of Her Xa Lor, 78, who died Jan. 2 of respiratory failure and pneumonia. Tong Cha, 66, says she and her husband wrapped up in blankets to stay warm in their icy Summerset apartment, but she watched as he grew weaker.

“He was old,” Cha says. “He couldn’t fight the cold.”

Meanwhile, Henry, a Kern County oil company owner and restaurateur in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara, owes the city $290,000 for 1,450 code violations. The money was due Jan. 6, but Henry is appealing. The city initially considered settling with Henry but later decided to let the appeal proceed.

Failed attempts

Leah Simon-Weisberg, legal director with the advocacy group Tenants Together, believes property owners should have reason to fear code enforcement. She is leading a class-action lawsuit against JD Home Rentals, one of Fresno’s largest rental companies, for alleged widespread failure to maintain its properties.

But in Fresno, she said, the department functions more like a management company, letting landlords fix problems often without any ramifications.

“If you have a situation where landlords are never caught for creating dangerous housing conditions unless tenants complain to code enforcement, you get delayed maintenance,” she said. “Fresno is the land of delayed maintenance.”

Until this year, Fresno code enforcement inspectors gave calls about abandoned vehicles and weeds as much priority as calls about broken heaters and unsafe stairs.

Of the 11,500 code cases processed in fiscal year 2015, less than 16 percent were for housing issues. The remainder were complaints for public nuisances and zoning issues, according to city records.

The city only issues fines if a landlord fails to correct violations by a given deadline. Even then, there might be no fine if officials believe the landlord is making a good-faith effort.

Landlords who feel they were wrongly fined by code enforcement can appeal. Fresno hearing officer Ed Johnson, who was hired on a three-year contract in late 2013, has overseen more than 3,000 cases for everything from parking hearings to marijuana cultivation. A second hearing officer, Michael Flores, was hired in February.

Fill out our survey to share your housing issues with us.

In late April, the City Council approved an ordinance requiring hearing officers to double fine amounts if an owner or occupants fail to begin repairs or demolition within 60 days of the appeal hearing. The hearing officer also can recommend misdemeanor prosecution.

“Some of these property owners will use every trick in the book to delay having to make any corrections,” says Rudd, who is optimistic the new ordinance will speed things up.

Landlords have 90 days to appeal the hearing officer’s decision to the Fresno County Superior Court. Johnson says that could add months to the process, since it’s up to the court to schedule the new hearing.

Among 127 administrative citation cases from late 2013 through mid-April – most of which Johnson says were for housing violations – only 38 were upheld completely by the hearing officer.

The rest were either reduced, dismissed or had no action taken. Johnson says that’s usually because there wasn’t enough evidence to support the citation or the property owner didn’t receive the notice.

In addition to paying a fine, property owners can get hit with a bill if the city has to take on repairs, and bills can be converted into a lien on the property until the owner pays up or the property is sold.

Until recently, liens had been the city’s final go-to option to get landlords to fix their properties. Owners can take years to pay liens – or never pay them – and the city historically has taken no action to hold them responsible. Other cities such as Visalia attach unpaid fines to property tax bills that owners must pay yearly.

Other efforts by the city of Fresno over the years to address substandard housing have fallen flat. In 1998, an 11-member task force of property managers, developers and owners planned to revive an old ordinance that would give the city more leverage against landlords who refused to fix issues.

Seven years later, an Anti-Slum Strike Force focused on larger apartment complexes with repeat code violations. On the agenda: persuade landlords to bring their properties up to code or pursue fines, lawsuits or criminal sanctions against them; establish a community advisory group; inform tenants and landlords of their rights and responsibilities.

Just before the recession in 2007, then-Mayor Autry’s 10X10 Blue Ribbon Committee called for more code enforcement inspectors and attorneys, receivership (whereby the city gains legal control of a property), tenant education and a systematic inspection process for frequent code violators.

Despite those actions, tenants still were plagued with shoddy conditions.

City pressured to act

Beginning last year, community activists in Fresno launched social media campaigns against blight and slumlords to put pressure on the mayor and city.

The nonprofit Faith in Community posted photos on social media of boarded-up homes for more than 100 days last year. No More Slumlords uses video and social media to bring attention to the living conditions of the poor.

Cortes of No More Slumlords says people know the symptoms of what he calls Fresno’s “slumlord industry,” but many don’t make the connection between crime, fires, blight and declined quality of life. He says the city needs a mayor who is capable of demanding enforcement in addition to building relationships with property owners.

“The city has been soft on slumlords, mainly because they’re not issuing fines and citations when these violations occur – especially when it’s violations that are from repeat offenders,” he says. “They get a courtesy notice instead of the city coming down hard. It’s not incentive for these property owners to really change their business model.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

City leaders say they intend to get tough with landlords over substandard housing. The new message: Fix up properties, or face fines or other legal action.

But that “get tough” stance took some time. Swearengin’s early years in office were devoted to developing a new general plan, development code, zoning map and downtown revitalization. Reforming code enforcement took a back seat, but that was by design, the mayor says. Without the plan, code and map, “we still will be in a place where we’re just chasing symptoms.”

She and the council formed the Code Enforcement Task Force of 26 city officials, community leaders and business executives in 2014. In its first phase, the group created a Vacant Blighted Building Ordinance that was adopted last June. Owners must register properties that are expected to be vacant for more than 30 days or risk a monthly $250 citation and possible legal action.

The group is now looking to develop a routine interior inspection program for apartments – an element community activists see as essential for improving housing quality.

Apartment inspection programs vary in California. In Los Angeles, the 780,000 multifamily rental units are inspected once every four years. Sacramento and Santa Cruz allow some self-inspections as well as city inspections but conduct random checks of units inspected by landlords. Perhaps not surprisingly, “we have found that some people didn’t tell us the truth when they did the self-inspections, so that’s posing a challenge,” says Alex Khoury, Santa Cruz assistant planning director.

At the Fresno city manager’s recommendation, the council in December adopted an ordinance allowing the city to place properties with severe code violations into receivership – a tool Swearengin’s administration has mentioned wanting to use since her third month in office in 2009. The city can ask to have a court-appointed person or company take control of the property and fix it up using its rent and income. The receiver would recover all costs through liens or sale of the property or other assets held by the owner.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Owners who don’t repair their properties can be sued in civil court, as the city already has done, and also could be criminally prosecuted, although the city hasn’t pursued that option.

Rudd’s strike team goes after the worst properties.

He assigned code enforcement officers to inspect 13 apartment complexes with the most calls for police, fire and code enforcement. Some apartments not targeted by the strike team may be in worse physical shape, but Rudd says public safety trumps leaky roofs and lack of heat.

Thirteen Fresno apartment complexes on strike team list; three are owned by JD Home Rentals.

Rudd’s initial list of target properties range from small fourplexes near downtown Fresno to larger properties with 60 or more units across the city. Some with boarded-up windows are in desperate need of rehab. Others don’t look bad from the outside. The ownership varies, from one person or families to limited liability corporations.

JD Home Rentals, which community activists have long tied to the word “slumlord,” is the only landlord with multiple properties – three – on the list. The company’s managed properties have been purchased by four generations of the Hovannisian family.

Bee stories throughout the years illustrate the company’s troubled history, which includes several lawsuits alleging substandard housing and the death of a 7-year-old girl in the murky water of a complex swimming pool.

In 1997, 112 current and former tenants sued JD Home Rentals for allegedly refusing to make repairs and retaliating against tenants who complained to city officials. Michael J. Kanz, then-director of litigation for Central California Legal Services, which filed suits on their behalf, at that time called the company “probably the largest slumlord in Fresno.” The suits eventually were settled out of court, he says.

The class action lawsuit filed by Tenants Together in 2014 is still in litigation.

Bryce Hovannisian, operations manager for JD Home Rentals, says complaints about substandard housing in the past are just that – in the past. He has been responsible for maintenance for five years and says repairs now are made quickly. “I believe we’re providing safe, affordable housing to the community, and that our prices are very competitive compared to the marketplace.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

But Hovannisian properties continue to attract the city’s attention. On Feb. 5, the strike team inspected a six-unit apartment complex at 276 N. Diamond St. managed by JD. The city had logged 26 code enforcement calls about the complex. It’s required by law to notify property owners before an inspection, and JD had already started repairs when the strike team inspector arrived.

The two-bedroom apartments, which rent for $465 monthly, had numerous problems, including a broken heater in the apartment Maria Villa shares with her husband and three children. It hadn’t worked since she moved in seven years ago, and she had been forced to use portable heaters. Although she previously had complained, it wasn’t fixed until the city inspection.

Hovannisian says he can’t speak specifically about Villa’s heater but says there is typically no longer than a two- or three-day wait to repair or replace heaters. He blames tenants for causing problems at the two other JD properties on the strike team list, one at 257 U St. and another at 358-360 N. Roosevelt Ave.

Reforms not set in stone

DeWitt, the former Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries staffer, says it’s high time the city puts landlords on notice and adopts an interior inspection ordinance.

“I want the suffering of the Summerset tenants to result in some policy change, and not just for them, but for other tenants across the city who face the same thing.”

In February, Swearengin told The Bee that Fresno will have a program to inspect the interior of apartments before she leaves office at the end of the year and that there would be a draft proposal for the May budget.

That timeline already has unraveled.

At a code enforcement task force meeting on March 30, members and the mayor acknowledged that a lot of work remains. Swearengin said an estimate for the cost of an inspection program would have to do as a “placeholder in the budget.”

If the current administration and City Council don’t push for a program that ensures annual interior inspections, the latest strike team is just “lipstick on a pig,” says Craig Scharton, a former Fresno City Council member and Swearengin’s former downtown revitalization czar. “Until you get annual inspections, you are not going to solve this problem.”

There is more reason for skepticism: Rudd’s strike team and the code task force have come at the tail end of Swearengin’s tenure, and there is no guarantee that the current City Council or new council and mayor will follow through with an interior inspection program.

None of what Swearengin and Rudd have done so far makes Cortes with No More Slumlords believe systemic changes are coming. “Ideally, we would love for whoever is the new mayor to tackle this issue head-on and keep this momentum going. The city is now addressing the elephant in the room. But again, regarding this issue, we have a long history of broken promises.”

The three leading mayoral candidates – Council Member Lee Brand, Supervisor Henry R. Perea and faith leader H. Spees – praise Swearengin and Rudd for the work they’ve done since Summerset to target bad landlords. But they say substandard housing is just one priority on a list that includes big-ticket services such as public safety and job development, and resources can be stretched only so far.

Their consensus: Put the money into enforcement of repeat offenders and leave the good landlords alone.

“You have to have your resources well-managed and well-harnessed,” says Brand, who owns an apartment complex in northeast Fresno and manages others. The city doesn’t have the money to inspect every apartment, he says. Instead, he would consider a self-inspection program. But the city should focus enforcement efforts on repeat offenders, and the bad landlords should be hit with higher fines when they’re caught in health and safety violations.

Perea says he would double the size of the city’s code enforcement unit to show bad landlords that they better clean up their act. He would reject a plan to inspect every apartment.

Spees advocates enforcing existing codes more stringently, adding more code enforcement inspectors and making bad property owners bear the expense of any interior inspection program. The tricky part, he says, is targeting the irresponsible landlords without creating onerous requirements for responsible owners.

Members of the mayor’s task force seem to be on the same page as the mayoral candidates. At the meeting in late March, several advocated for a plan that wouldn’t burden landlords who follow the rules.

In the meantime, the inside of apartments will remain uninspected unless a complex lands on the strike team list or a distressed tenant calls to complain.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Decubas and his wife, plagued by vermin in the family’s apartment, continue to scrub, store food in air-tight containers and catch mice in traps. Destiny, their barefoot 6-year-old daughter, sticks to her own way of dealing with cockroaches.

“I smash them with my feet.”

(This story originally appeared on fresnobee.com.)

  Comments