[check back for video highlights from the meeting]
The Fresno city council took a step forward in its battle against slumlords Thursday night, approving the Anti-Slumlord Enforcement Team and the Landlord-Tenant Ombudsman. The ideas brought forth by Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier passed 5-2.
The problem of substandard housing and code enforcement came to light in November 2015 when nearly 1,000 residents of the Summerset Village Apartments in southeast Fresno were discovered to be living without heating or hot water. That triggered a public outcry into how the city should be keeping tabs on bad landlords.
When Brandau and Olivier introduced the plan on Monday, Mayor Ashley Swearengin said it would water down her version of fighting bad landlords called STOPP (Strike Team On Problem Properties) and vowed to oppose it. Initially, the Brandau/Olivier plan would use a sliding scale of inspection: the larger a complex, the more units code enforcement officers would inspect. A compromise was made that now, a complaint could trigger a full inspection of every unit. That was good enough for the Mayor’s office to drop her opposition.
“When we know that the property is a health and safety violator, we go in and we can inspect every single unit,” Brandau said. “Our goal is to deal with the bad actors.”
ASET’s team was also cut down from the original plan from 14 to 12. Six members of the team will be switched from the STOPP unit. A supervisor, three code enforcement officers, an attorney and the ombudsman will be hired at a cost of around $500,000 a year, Brandau estimates. Eliminated from the initial plan are an ASET manager and administrative assistant.
The plan also received support from the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and California Apartment Association. No More Slumlords, a tenant advocacy group, gave the idea conditional support. But, it was not enough for more progressive tenant rights groups.
Other advocacy groups such as Faith in Community and individual attorneys feel a proactive system of mandatory inspections of all city rental units is the best course. They feel that a complaint-based system is ineffective and could lead to backlash.
Pahoua Lor is an attorney representing clients at Summerset. “I have listened to their stories. An ombudsman, as great as it may seem, will not solve the issue. The issue is to address the fear and retaliation tenants on a daily basis feel.”
Andy Levine of Faith in Community advocated for a mandatory inspection system. “There is a reason why a reactive complaint based team is not sufficient, has never been sufficient in the city of Fresno. A routine proactive inspection program is necessary.”
“People are already living in fear. They are afraid of their landlords. If folks are undocumented, they are going to think 10 times more to call their landlord and complain about their situation,” Leticia Valencia said to council.
Brandau and Olivier made their pitch, hoping to win over a skeptical council. Lee Brand feels more can be done, but supported ASET because it was a first good step. At one point, a woman was ejected from the chambers for interrupted him as he spoke.
Esmeralda Soria also supported the plan. “Our city needs to do a little more to be proactive, rather than reactive. I do support adding additional resources,” she said from dais.
Paul Caprioglio also supported the plan, albeit reluctantly. He had little faith in the effectiveness of the ombudsman component. “This is another Band-Aid on a Band-Aid…We are adding more code enforcement officers. For that reason, I will support this. We need more boots on the ground.”
Oliver Baines and Sal Quintero voted against.
The council now awaits a possible plan from Mayor Swearengin. At issue is whether she will appeal for a mandatory inspection system. However, there are only three council meetings scheduled before her term ends. It does not preclude her, however, from calling a special council meeting.