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After levying a $337,350 fine on a landlord, is Fresno's slumlord ordinance working?

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Fresno’s forgotten Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance is doing just fine.

Well, things are hunky-dory if your idea of competent government regulation is a third-of-a-million-dollar fine for letting a small duplex go south.

Michael Flores, the city’s independent administrative hearing officer, handled an appeal last month that had at its heart just such an outrageous fine.

Maria Contreras owns a duplex in the 1600 block of N. West Avenue, about a mile west of Fresno High School. The duplex has had so many problems that city officials at one point weren’t sure if the structure was two connected units or a single-family residence.

The city’s Code Enforcement Division has been trying for nearly a year to get Contreras to clean up and fix her troubled property. Contreras didn’t comply.

City Hall hit her with a fine of $337,350.

The 1600 block of N. West Avenue no doubt is a wonderful neighborhood. But it’s not Van Ness extension or the River Bluffs.

$337,350!

Contreras appealed. In the end, Flores found reasons to reduce the fine to $79,850. That’s still a bill guaranteed to get any landlord’s attention, but at least it’s not six figures.

The Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance is nearly two years old. The City Council approved the law in May 2015 on a 5-2 vote, with Steve Brandau and Clint Olivier voting no.

Near as I can recall, Ashley Swearengin in her final 19 months as mayor and Lee Brand in his first three-and-a-half months as chief executive never gave the public a detailed report on whether the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance is working as promised.

Such a report would also reveal whether much-publicized reforms in the Code Enforcement Division are panning out.

Budget hearings begin in early June. The Contreras appeal suggests that a public vetting of the Code Enforcement Division before the budget hearings would be well worth City Hall’s time and Fresnans’ attention.

The following details come from Flores’ 23-page decision.

Contreras did not appear at the appeal hearing. America Villa, Contreras’ daughter-in-law, represented the landlord.

Code enforcement was aware of problems at the duplex as far back as early 2016, when someone else owned it. The city had levied a fine of about $7,000 on the previous owner.

Contreras bought the property in mid-2016. As a condition of the sale, the fine was to be paid and the new owner was to fix all remaining code violations.

A code inspector issued a blight notice to Contreras on July 28, 2016.

The notice, Flores wrote, “included violations for the presence of junk and rubbish on the Property, as well windows and other openings on the structure covered in particle board instead of the required ‘Lexan’ or other approved material, the presence of tall grass and weeds, fire damage to the structure, graffiti, and a fence that was too high pursuant to the FMC (Fresno Municipal Code).”

Photos proved the obvious – the place was the essence of urban blight.

Fast forward to January 2017. A city code inspector returned to the duplex. It was still a mess. In fact, the city took the initiative to cover ten unsecured openings.

In mid-February, Contreras submitted plans to fix everything. However, she had missed the deadline for submitting such plans.

The city had had enough. The original fine – seven separate code violations, left unfixed for nearly a half-year – was $346,000. The city later amended the amount to $337,350.

The code inspector, Flores wrote, “testified that from the first week of August 2016 to the middle of February 2017, there was little to no change in the condition of the Property, which was the reason the Citation was issued.”

This explains how the fine grew and grew. Contreras was cited for seven code violations. She was given time to fix all seven. If they weren’t fixed by the deadline, City Hall reasoned, then she was to be hit with a $250 fine per violation per day.

My rough math goes like this: $1,750 per day ($250 x 7 violations) multiplied by a half-year or so of days. That’s not precisely how the fine was computed, but you get the idea.

Swearengin said back in 2015 that City Hall was getting serious about slumlords. A fine of $337,350 must have been what she had in mind.

Villa (the daughter-in-law) testified that Contreras thought she had purchased a property with all code violations fixed. Villa said there also was a misunderstanding with the city over the amount of access Contreras had to a fire-damaged structure.

Villa said Contreras decided to save the structure and hired someone to do repairs. Villa said efforts were underway to fix all code problems.

I’ve been to code hearings where the appellant claims the blight problem isn’t really landlord indifference or greed. The problem is City Hall’s failure to keep crime at bay.

Flores wrote: “Ms. Villa testified that an adjacent property is vacant and it attracts transients, and there have been two incidents where vandals have cut the Property’s chain link fence and broken some of the windows. Ms. Villa testified that she has asked the adjacent property owners if she can borrow their dogs to ‘guard’ the Property.”

Of course, city officials during debate on the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance said this logic is backwards – it’s slumlords and their blighted buildings that make people go bad.

The Contreras duplex could be up to code by September.

Flores wrote: “Ms. Villa testified that the property was purchased as an investment, there were no plans for either she or Appellant to occupy the Property, but there were plans to rent the duplex for revenue generation purposes. In response to another question from the Hearing Officer, Ms. Villa testified that Appellant owned another property in Pinedale.”

Contreras owns this property just a short walk from Jane Addams Elementary School on McKinley Avenue and another property in Pinedale in Northwest Fresno. Is Contreras one of those big, evil, stingy slumlords that city politicians love to run against, or is she simply a small-time and perhaps overwhelmed real estate investor trying to get ahead in a tough city?

Flores in his decision found that the city was right – the property was a disaster. For example, take what Flores describes as “Condition 5 – Rubbish and Junk Throughout the Property.”

Flores wrote: “The City’s evidence again establishes that the Property contained large amounts of such rubbish and junk for a period lasting at least from late July 2016 when the Blight Notice was issued until January 20, 2017 when the Citation was issued.”

What also makes the Contreras appeal worth noting is the city’s formula for computing the $337,350 fine. I’ve written in the past about code fines approaching the $40,000 or $50,000 mark. In those cases, uncooperative landlords were cited for five or six (sometimes more) violations. They were fined $250 a day for each violation. The limiting factor was the number of days in the formula – 30.

In the Contreras case, the number of days was 173. If you’re City Hall, that’s hitting the jackpot.

Flores in his decision explains why the city was legally required to stick with the 30-day limit in computing Contreras’ fine. As noted above, the fine was reduced to $79,850.

Flores wrote: “Should the City wish in the future to assess the fines pursuant to FMC section 10-617 (c) (3) for every day such a violation occurs without any limitation, the Hearing Officer recommends that the City delete the qualifying language contained in the bolded sentence in the second paragraph of the Blight Notice, ‘…for the preceding 30 days.’”

Flores noted that many appellants in the past complained that code fines were excessive. Former hearing officer Ed Johnson raised such Constitutional concerns, as well.

For a variety of reasons (all explained in detail), Flores said the nearly $80,000 fine was not excessive.

Among those reasons: Contreras’ failure to fix the violations in a timely manner was an example of egregious conduct.

Flores wrote: “Appellant’s failure to immediately repair the violations when it was financially and logistically possible to do so negatively affects the health and safety of the neighborhood.”

Flores scheduled a progress hearing on the Contreras property for May 16.

That’s a Tuesday.

I recommend a City Council workshop two days later on the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance.


Photo: The Fresno Bee

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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