Temperatures in the Central Valley are dropping as fall gives way to winter. But for many families that also means enduring another winter in substandard housing, a problem that the City of Fresno says it has been working to fix since the passage of a new rental inspection ordinance in February.
That ordinance was supposed to set up a process for city inspectors to check most rental housing units in town to build a database and make sure living conditions are healthy and safe.
However, 9 months later, inspections have yet to start and renters and their allies are getting nervous.
Two years ago, the City of Fresno was rocked by the unsafe living conditions at the Summerset Village Apartment complex. Hundreds of people, mostly Southeast Asian refugees, were without hot water or gas. They had packed into tiny rundown rooms. Local media swarmed the complex and its owner, a San Francisco area restaurateur, became the poster boy for slum housing citywide.
In response, earlier this year the Fresno City Council approved the Rental Housing Inspection Act to begin the process of checking the conditions of nearly all of the roughly 90,000 rental housing units in the city.
The ordinance was approved in February but to date, inspections have yet to begin.
Patience Milrod is an attorney with Central California Legal Services, which often provides representation for tenants during disputes with their landlords.
She says she just doesn’t understand why it is taking so long for Fresno to get started when other California cities, like Sacramento, already have broad-based inspection regimes and registration databases.
“The city has spent about ten months, trying to invent a wheel that has already been invented,” Milrod says.
The delay, Milrod says, is more than just a bureaucratic one, it’s harmful to some of the most vulnerable families in Fresno.
“They are still there. The city could have relieved tons of families from this kind of environment if it had acted promptly but it hasn’t done anything that has yielded a result yet,” Milrod says.
City officials disagree with that claim and say existing code enforcement efforts are still ongoing.
But the old system has failed, says Fresno resident Karla Arana.
She says she lived in a converted garage apartment with 5 other families’ members that had holes in the ceiling that the landlord refused to fix, despite multiple requests.
“For over a year, just having to live with looking at the sky at night and just bugs and everything coming in,” Arana says.
Arana, now 21, and her entire family are undocumented and she says the landlord used that fact against them to keep them in the home as well as threatening to tell other landlords not to rent to them. She says they believed this was just part of what it meant to be a new immigrant in the United States.
She says those threats, and a lack of knowledge about local policy made it impossible for her family to report the conditions to city officials even if they knew where to go. That is why she thinks inspections should not be the responsibility of the renter but a blanket requirement for all.
“And that is why I think this policy is so important. Because now people don’t have to report that. Now the city is going to do that job. And that I think is the best advice I can give,” Arana says.
This is exactly the kind of story Milrod and others say they are trying to prevent because the people who live in slum housing conditions are often among the poorest and most disadvantaged residents. Reporting their problems could tip off a vindictive landlord.
The city of Fresno strongly disputes the insinuation that there has been a delay in setting up the inspection program. Instead, they insist this is their one chance to get it right and they don’t want to blow it.
“You have to kind of think of it as a cake that is going to take X amount of time. And we realize that there are people out there who are hungry who would like to have a piece of this cake. But it is going to be ready when it is ready. And the important thing for us is to get it right, rather than right now,” says city spokesman Mark Standriff.
So far, the city claims they have hired all the staff, 10 inspectors and a manager, whose job it will be to comb through the tens of thousands of units.
They are also working to establish a web portal where landlords can register their units and keep up to date on the rolling inspections the ordinance requires. The city hired local software company Bitwise to do the digital infrastructure for the project, which is currently in beta testing.
However, Standriff says rushing poses its own problems because it could lead to legal fights that tie up landlords - who also have legal rights - and the city, while problem housing remains in place.
“The city is moving forward and we are as anxious as anybody to get this moving. This is really one of the mayor’s signature pieces of his first year in office. So we obviously want to have this out there. We want to show the community that we are being proactive. But it doesn’t do anybody any good if we rush something that isn’t ready to go,” Standriff says.
Standriff says the city is on pace to have the database up and running and begin inspections early in 2018. In the meantime, he says the existing inspection and reporting regime is still place for anyone who has concerns about conditions right now.
The city council bumped an item examining the progress on the act until after the New Year.