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With Brand's housing initiative OK'd, key piece of Brandau-Olivier proposal gets axed

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The fundamental point from the City Council’s three-hour hearing last week on slum housing reform was delivered two minutes into the drama.

Mayor Lee Brand was first to the public microphone. His mission was to lay the foundation for public debate on his proposed Rental Housing Improvement Act. The Mayor began by noting that Fresno for decades has been largely ineffective in using its charter-authorized police power to ensure a basic level of quality housing for all Fresnans.

For example, Brand said, the City Attorney’s Office currently has just two lawyers assigned to prosecuting the owners of rundown, unhealthy and unsafe buildings – residential units being the most important part of this universe.

Then Brand, perhaps unintentionally, revealed where Fresno’s housing regulation policy is headed for decades to come.

“The city of Sacramento, by comparison, roughly the same size as Fresno, with probably a better stock of housing, has 10 city attorney’s prosecuting cases,” Brand said.

Sacramento – capital of the nation’s most populous and richest state, home to armies of well-paid government workers, a place with 30,000 fewer residents than Fresno – requires 10 full-time assistant city attorneys to prosecute private property owners for their failures to comply with every government regulation concerning basic standards for rental housing.

And after all those years of dedicated effort and all those uncompromising prosecutions, Sacramento still needs five times as many city lawyers as Fresno currently possesses to chase down intractable property owners.

Either Sacramento is America’s slumlord heaven, or there’s something about government regulation that makes it a permanent and lucrative growth industry.

Come to think of it, the answer is probably both.

Fresno continues down Sacramento’s path this Thursday when the council votes on adoption of Brand’s Rental Housing Improvement Act. The legislation was successfully introduced Feb. 2 on a 4-3 vote. Council Members Steve Brandau and Garry Bredefeld and Council President Clint Olivier vote no.

The council also will consider a resolution to deliver $272,200 to the Department of Resource Management and the City Attorney’s Office to fund employees for the anti-slumlord fight.

This second piece of legislation confuses me. The staff report says the money will support the city’s Anti-Slum Enforcement Team (ASET). This team will consist of 16 people – a division manager, a supervisor, seven senior community revitalization specialists, two community revitalization specialists, three lawyers, a paralegal and a legal secretary. We’re well into the eighth month of the 2016-2017 fiscal year. A bit more than a quarter-million dollars isn’t enough to pay for 16 city workers, even if they’re on the job for only the fiscal year’s final quarter. Exactly how this money will augment ASET’s mission isn’t clear to me.

And then there’s ASET’s genesis. The initiative was the brainchild of Brandau and Olivier, who got the council and Administration (Ashley Swearengin was mayor at the time) to buy into this housing reform concept late last year. It’s news to me that there’s essentially no difference between Brand’s Rental Housing Improvement Act and the Anti-Slum-Enforcement Team initiative. I thought the latter was meant to make the former unnecessary.

More importantly, I don’t see anything in the staff report that mentions the ASET initiative’s “ombudsman” position. No need here to go into detail on the importance that Brandau and Olivier attach to the ombudsman in securing quality rental housing while retaining the liberties of law-abiding property owners. It’s sufficient to simply note that the absence of the ombudsman from the Brand Administration’s plans, if in fact that is the case, is a Bronx cheer directed at the two council members.

Finally, let’s talk money. The staff report says the $272,200 will come from proceeds of the sale of the city-owned Blosser property in Northwest Fresno. (The history of the Blosser property is worth a political science class at Fresno State all by itself.)

The staff report is using a passive voice to acknowledge that the money is coming from the general fund. Because we’re talking about a mid-fiscal year budget appropriation, the Administration’s request requires at least five votes. Brand either gets Brandau, Bredefeld or Olivier to flip, or he waits until the June budget hearings to fully fund that 16-person anti-slumlord team.

Is a variation of the ombudsman in the Rental Housing Improvement Act a solon-flipper?


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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