Sergio and Ashley Cortes knock on a door in a run-down apartment building near downtown Fresno.
Sergio Cortes greets the young woman that cautiously cracks open the door. Ashley Cortes stands behind her husband, clasping a clipboard, ready to take notes.
“We’re basically doing canvassing of apartment complexes owned by JD Homes, and we want to talk to the tenants to see if they have any problems with JD Homes, like any stuff that’s not being fixed, anything that’s broken,” Sergio Cortes says.
Sergio and Ashley Cortes have had similar conversations at dozens of door fronts.
“To let you know, you are not the only ones going through this, there are multiple families out that are going through the same struggle, and are in the same environment where nothing’s being fixed, and the owner’s not really doing anything,” Sergio Cortes continues. “Right now, we’re informing tenants like you and your family that you have rights.”
Sergio Cortes, 28, and Ashley Cortes, 24, have made it their mission to prevent slumlord conditions in Fresno, and especially in the Lowell neighborhood.
Two years ago, the couple moved into an apartment complex near downtown Fresno. It’s owned by J.D. Homes, which they consider to be a slumlord. They grew frustrated, they said, as conditions in the complex deteriorated, and the owner didn’t fix the problems.
In a written statement, J.D. Homes said it's invested in the community, and works hard to provide good quality, low-income housing.
They decided to take action. First, they became the on-site managers of their own building, and worked to improve health and safety there. Then, they began educating renters in the Lowell neighborhood about their rights, with the group Tenants Together. Soon, they’ll be launching their own multimedia organization, called No More Slumlords.
“Hearing that there’s this injustice going on in our backyard, and it’s sort of being ignored, really, really made me upset, and really, really hurt my heart,” Sergio Cotes said.
Sergio and Ashley Cortes could be part of the solution to the Lowell neighborhood’s slumlord problem. But it will take a larger, sustained effort to change the deep-seated conditions that have made Lowell a neighborhood ripe for slumlords.
The neighborhood is located between the Tower District and downtown Fresno. It’s shaped like a triangle, and is bordered on the east by Blackstone Avenue, on the south by Divisadero Avenue, and on the north and west by Highway 180.
Lowell is extremely poor. It was included in a 2006 Brookings Institution study of concentrated poverty in Fresno. But community advocates say it is also rich in history, diversity and camaraderie. Beautiful, antique homes sit next to more dilapidated, multi-family buildings. In the afternoon, children walk home from school and families sit outside their homes.
So, what is a slumlord and how prevalent are they in Fresno?
Phil Skei, a Lowell resident and the board chairperson of the Lowell Community Development Corporation, said slumlords don’t invest in their properties, even when there’s a problem.
“To me a slumlord is someone who owns any property and never makes any improvements,” Skei said. “So there’s some property owned by some of our infamous slumlords, that’s actually somewhat decent property, but what then happens if something goes wrong, if something breaks, if something leaks, and you try to contact your landlord or manager and get it repaired? That’s the slumlord issue – is that they do not respond.”
Leah Simon-Weisberg has witnessed these conditions in Lowell, and throughout the City of Fresno.
"It has a huge impact on children," she said. "And whether they are being exposed to lead, or having to go to school after being cold all night, because the heater doesn't work, or having to live in an apartment where there's been several sewage floods and the landlord refuses to change the carpet. And cockroaches and rats."
Sergio and Ashley Cortes are all too familiar with the conditions of some of the city's low-income housing.
When they were new to the building, Sergio Cortes said, “we’d contact the owner – our heater is not working, what’s going on? We have people coming and selling drugs, people walking through our complex with guns because the gates are not secured, there’s no lighting at night, all this stuff.”
The Cortes’ said J.D. Homes ignored their complaints. In a statement, J.D. Homes said it responds to all complaints within three working days, with those impacting the health and safety of tenants being addressed immediately.
“But the owner did not really care,” Sergio Cortes said. “We’d get the run-around - we’ll send someone next week to fix it, we’ll send someone next week to fix it.”
“I got so frustrated – how come nothing is being done? And I honestly heard a little voice in my head saying, ‘how come you’re not doing anything?’”
Since then, Sergio and Ashley Cortes have become the on-site property managers at the complex.
“When I took over for being on-site manager, I really wanted to create a safe environment here, because at that time, it wasn’t a safe environment,” Sergio Cortes explained.
Still, they have gone beyond the call of duty to clean up the complex. Sergio Cortes paid, out of pocket, for security cameras for the complex. He bought a blue-tooth earpiece that can record video.
“I really don’t recommend people doing this, but I went online and bought a security outfit, with a utility belt, got some walky-talkies, I’m going to do this – I’m going to wear this security uniform and walk inside the apartment complex,” he said.
Ashley Cortes expects their organization, No More Slumlords, to launch in about two months.
“Our whole goal for this is to capture people’s stories, about what they’re experiencing, and visually display that,” she said. “A lot of the target audience for slumlords are low-income, families and immigrants, and so for us, a lot of times, they do not have a voice in our society, so we want to make sure that they have a voice.”
Sergio and Ashley Cortes acknowledge their advocacy could have consequences. They are targeting property owners, including the one that provides them with housing, in exchange for acting as on-site managers. But they’re not afraid, they said, because their actions are guided by their faith.
“I truly believe that this is something that Sergio and I have prayed about for a very long time, and we feel very strongly that God does not like to see his people being oppressed,” Ashley Cortes said. “We feel very strongly that God is protecting us, fighting for those who are oppressed.”
Phil Skei, of the Lowell Community Development Corporation, called Sergio and Ashley Cortes ‘fearless.’ Skei said he fully supports the Cortes’ massive fight.
“He’s not afraid to get in the fight,” Skei said. He sees the way in which the impact of slumlords disproportionately affects the most vulnerable people in our society, meaning, the poor, the infants and children, and the elderly.”
Back at the apartment complex, Sergio Cortes hands the young woman some information about tenant’s rights.
“If something’s not being fixed here, then you have other options, because you’re paying rent, and by state law, you’re required to have those repairs,” he tells her.
Those housing conditions will change, if Sergio and Ashley Cortes have anything to do with it.