Thursday is the day tenants’ rights activist has been waiting for. The Fresno city council will debate the long awaited rental inspection ordinance.  GV Wire has gauged thoughts from those groups, landlords and those on the council. The opinion is mixed.

“This is long overdue,” says Andy Levine, director of Faith in Fresno. “The community has been really pushing for this. Tenants have been having their voices to be heard.”

Landlords are not so convinced. “I believe this ordinance needs a lot more work. It needs to be thoroughly read,” Bryce Hovannisian, operations manager of JD Home Rentals says. “There are contradictions in here that need to be clarified. This ordinance needs more work and more testing before it is implemented citywide.”

The California Apartment Association estimates there are 85,000 rental units in the city. We asked them for their thoughts, but they declined as they are still evaluating the ordinance.

The ordinance covers any rental unit hosting a person for more than 30 days. That includes apartments, condos and single-family homes. There are a few exceptions: owner-occupied units (i.e. renting a room in your home that you live in); mobile home parks; vacant properties; hotels, motels and bed & breakfasts; hospitals or other medical care facilities (nursing homes are covered under this); and units owned or managed by an educational, religious or medical institution that are used by employees (i.e. teacher housing, rectories, etc.).

Other exemptions include buildings less than ten years old and subsidized rental units that are inspected by another agency (like some state or federal housing).

The city will engage in a baseline inspection of all units. The city plans to start at properties known to be trouble by the number of health and safety code complaints. Next on the list would be multi-family properties of two or more (i.e. apartment complexes); then would be rental homes known to be problems. At the bottom of the list would be rental homes in good standing.

Not every unit at every apartment complex would be inspected. The city plans to use a sliding scale: for complexes with 51 or more units, a sampling of 10% would be inspected. That goes all the way down to 15% of inspections for 16-50 unit buildings; 25% for 5-15; 50% for 2-4; and naturally, 100% for single units. The city will charge $100 per unit for inspections.

Inspection notices will be provided to the owner and tenant 14 days in advance. It will be rescheduled if it is cancelled by either the owner or city.

The city considers these inspections mandatory, whether the tenant likes it or not. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires a warrant signed by a judge in order to inspect private property:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In supplemental regulations to the ordinance, the city believes that (Regulation E1d):

If an Owner or tenant in possession of the Property refuses to allow access to conduct the inspection, the City Attorney may use all legal remedies permitted by law. Inspections under the Rental Housing Improvement Act are considered a “necessary service” for which entry by the Owner, upon proper notice, is allowed per Civil Code 1954.

Specifically, that civil code says a landlord may enter the unit under a specific set of circumstances. Civil Code 1944 (a) (2) says: (A landlord may enter the dwelling unit) To make necessary or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations or improvements, supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workers, or contractors or to make an inspection pursuant to subdivision (f) of Section 1950.5 [which deals with when a lease is terminated].

The question is, if a tenant asserts privacy rights, will inspections be considered a “necessary service” as the city claims? City Manager Bruce Rudd has said in the past that they would likely just move on to the next unit if that were to be the case. The regulation also calls for an inspector to refer the case to Code Enforcement if they spot any other health or safety violation not within the scope of inspection.

All properties will be required to be registered with the city. There will be no charge to register. Among the information asked for on the application will include location of the unit as well as contact information for the owners and/or building managers.  According to the ordinance the contact information “shall remain confidential and for internal city use only, and not available to any member of the public” (Section 10-1605 (1)(b)(vii)).

The ordinance also sets up a self-certification program. Property owners are expected to inspect their own units once every 12 months and when there is a change of tenants. The inspection must be conducted by “professional property management company licensed by the State of California” (Section 10-1607 (a)). However, 10% of those on the self-certification list are subject to random inspection by the city. If that happens and the unit passes, they are clear for five years (Section 10-1607 (c)).

If an inspector does find a violation, the property owner shall have a “reasonable” time to correct the problem. There is no specific time table listed in in the ordinance. A re-inspection will take place to make sure the correction did happen. If a problem remains, the city has the power to use all methods by law (citations, civil suits, criminal prosecutions) at its discretion.

Properties will be classified in three tiers to determine how often units will be inspected. Tier 1 properties will include units that pass the first time or fix violations within 30 days. They are clear for five years.

The city will consider properties as Tier 2 if they fail the initial inspection and re-inspection, a medium level of code violations (that don’t pose imminent danger, death or serious injury) or are late on fees and/or taxes. They are subject to inspection every two years.

Tier 3 properties will be inspected every year, and all units would be looked at. To be in this classification, units would have to fail multiple inspections or are more than 120 days late with fees and/or taxes.

Landlords can claim that the tenants are to blame for certain violations, but would have to prove it and correct the problem (regulation G3).

Sergio Cortes is the executive director of No More Slumlords, an advocate group that has produced many videos documenting poor living conditions. He too likes what he sees so far. “Having a proactive measure like the routine inspection ordinance will definitely help and prevent any other Summerset from happening again.”

Summerset Village is the apartment complex in southeast Fresno that ignited slumlords and substandard housing into the public’s consciousness. The city took action when it was discovered in November 2015 that residents were living there without heat.

Hovannisian feels this inspection ordinance may be excessive. “I don’t believe this accomplishes any more than a good responsive and thorough code enforcement division.”

Councilman Steve Brandau shares those sentiments. “It is overkill…it cast a bigger net over everybody in order to catch the bad guys.”

Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria is eager to protect those in need. “We definitely need to do something. We’ve seen over the course over the last couple of years what has happened people are living in substandard housing conditions.”

No More Slumlords has been creating a series of videos and social media posts, lowlighting slum housing. Their pictures can be graphic. One of the landlords they target is JD Home Rentals. Hovanissian says those allegations of wrongdoing are false.

“Any tenant that calls is getting fast and thorough service. The allegations made in the made video we believe are largely false. When people are calling us for repairs to be made, we are making those repairs and we are making them promptly,” Hovanissian tells GV Wire.

We asked Mayor Lee Brand for comment and more details of the plan. He declined to talk to GV Wire. Based on prior debates at City Hall, Council should be expecting a long evening. Proceeding start at 4:30p in council chambers in downtown Fresno.

E-mail: David Taub

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