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City Hall scores first victory in War on Slumlords

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Fresno is finally ripping into irresponsible landlords – or “slumlords” as City Hall prefers to call them.

The tipping point in this long quest for social justice turns out to be the widow of one of Fresno’s heroic firefighters from the 20th century.

Yep – this code enforcement stuff is strange business.

Administrative Hearing Officer Michael Flores has upheld a fine of $7,900 against LaDonna Reddemann, owner of a blighted vacant building in Central Fresno.

The city had originally fined Reddemann a total of $22,500 for three violations of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance. Each violation carried a $7,500 fine.

Reddemann appealed.

Flores in his 12-page decision of last month said the city misapplied the law when citing Reddemann for two of the violations. He reduced the fine for each of these violations to $200.

But Flores did uphold the $7,500 fine for using the wrong material to secure the empty building’s doors and windows. Reddemann used plywood instead of a clear material such as Lexan.

Flores’ decision is a big deal.

Ed Johnson, the city’s other hearing officer, recently released four written decisions on Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance appeals. The fines in those four appeals totaled $90,000. Johnson tossed all but $950 of the fines.

Johnson explained his thinking in considerable detail. In essence, he said the city was getting carried away with its power to fine property owners. Landlords have a Constitutional right to due process, too, he said.

The city’s $7,500 fine per violation really bothered Johnson.

The Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance gives a landlord 30 days from the date of an official notice to fix itemized violations. If the landlord does nothing, the city fines him $250 per day per violation – going back to the Day 1 of the 30-day period.

If there’s one violation, then the landlord is hit with a $7,500 fine (30 times $250). If, for example, there are four separate violations at the building, then the fine is $30,000 ($7,500 times four).

With Johnson in the judge’s chair, City Hall couldn’t get even one $7,500 fine upheld.

With Flores in the judge’s chair for the Reddemann appeal, City Hall suffered the indignity of seeing two $7,500 fines dramatically reduced. But the third $7,500 fine was upheld in full.

Take note, all you landlords – I mean slumlords: The “$7,500” philosophical logjam in City Hall’s appellate court has been broken. There’s no going back to the old days.

The property in question is a small vacant house at 615 N. First Street, about 100 yards south of Romain Playground. It’s fair to say this area has a lot of social and economic challenges.

According to Flores’ decision, employees from the city’s Code Enforcement Division inspected the Reddemann site on Aug. 5, 2015. Three separate code violations were discovered.

There was a second inspection was on Sept. 21. The situation hadn’t changed.

The city on Oct. 21 sent Reddemann a notice called “Blighted Property and Order to Remove Public Nuisance Violations.” The three violations were listed. The 30-day clock began ticking.

Code inspectors re-visited 615 N. First on Nov. 23 and found the house in the same condition. A citation listing the three violations was issued on Dec. 4. LaDonna Reddemann was hit with a $22,500 fine on a building that, to a layman like me, appears to be worth next to nothing.

Reddemann appealed. The hearing was held April 7 at City Hall. Reddemann and her son-in-law, Robert Kim, squared off against the city’s Richard Salinas and Maria Martinez.

The two sides met for about 25 minutes before the hearing to see if they could settle things. No success.

The three alleged violations:

1.) Failure to properly board up and secure the windows and doors with an approved material such as Lexan.

2.) Damaged/deteriorated exterior wall on the south side.

3.) Oxidized and peeling exterior wood surfaces, exposing them to weather damage.

The city’s representatives began the hearing by providing photos of the building. According to Flores’ decision, the photos showed an old and battered structure.

Kim was first up for the appellant’s side. He noted that the building and property had been for sale since last fall.

According to Flores’ decision, Kim didn’t dispute the story told by the photos. But, Kim added, there was more to tell.

Kim “then provided a brief history of the property,” Flores wrote. “The residence had been there since approximately 1913. Ms. Reddemann’s husband, Jack, inherited the house, and died in approximately 2009.

“Mr. Kim testified that the Appellant also owned the vacant lot adjacent to the property and owned other properties immediately to the back of the property which subsequently were sold or being prepared for sale.

“Mr. Kim further testified that he did not replace the plywood over the windows and doors of the residence because he believed that the transparent material required by the City was not strong enough to prevent break-ins, and that he saw a TV news report showing a person throwing a baseball at the approved material, which shattered. (My note: It was actually a rock thrown by local developer and former pro baseball player Terance Frazier.)

“He further testified that there was a fire at the house caused by transients breaking into the residence. Mr. Kim then stated that it was hard to keep up with the maintenance of the property and the adjacent properties all at once, as he was the owner of a small business and had to work to pay bills and take care of his family including his wife and Appellant.

“Mr. Kim testified that 2015 was a ‘tough year’ for him and the family, as Appellant suffered two serious falls with injuries, and pneumonia.

“Additionally, his wife was diagnosed with two different types of cancer, and had recently gone through chemo-therapy. Mr. Kim showed the City and the Hearing Officer pictures of Appellant, confirming her injuries from the two falls, and Mr. Kim’s wife in a hospital bed showing the effects of chemo-therapy.

“Mr. Kim also testified that the prospective owners of the property were aware of the appeal and were using their own money to start repairs and prepare it for occupancy.”

Jack Reddemann died at age 82 in February 2009 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. According to an obituary in The Bee, he was born in Fresno and graduated from Fresno Tech High School in 1944. He served in the Army during World War II. He was a Fresno firefighter for 37 years and a proud member of the Fresno Retired Firefighters Association.

According to Flores’ decision, LaDonna Reddemann testified that “she was forced to take care of her husband when he became ill. Prior to that, her husband did his best to maintain the property and when he was unable to do so, she hired a person to maintain all the properties. The two falls and pneumonia occurred near the time that the Notice was issued. She further testified that Mr. Kim was preoccupied with the health of she and his wife and ‘priorities had changed.’”

But City Hall doesn’t allow landlord/slumlord priorities to change when blight is destroying the free will of inner city residents.

Flores in his decision tackled two key themes.

First, Flores had to decide how much (if any) of the three $7,500 fines he would uphold. He gave a hint of his thinking when, at the end of the hearing, he asked Code Enforcement inspector Salinas to explain the city’s unusual way of citing exactly which laws were being violated.

The Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance was listed as the law abused by Reddemann when she used plywood to secure the building’s doors and windows. The state’s Health and Safety code and other parts of the Fresno Municipal Code were cited in the other two violations – damaged exterior wall and exposed wood surfaces.

But the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance, with its mechanism to supercharge the accumulation of $250 fines, was used for all three violations when determining how much money was owed by Reddemann.

Flores in his decision summarized Salinas’ response as saying “the two violations not specifically citing to the Ordinance were in fact violations because the Blight Ordinance’s purpose is to address the lack of maintenance on a property, and the two violations not specifically citing that Ordinance still reflected a lack of maintenance and therefore were in fact violations of the Blight Ordinance.”

In other words, the end justifies the means as long as the cause is viewed as just by society’s majority and the government is on the white horse – a sentiment warmly embraced by many Fresnans in powerful places.

Flores wrote that Salinas’ logic “seemed inconsistent.”

In the end, Flores decided that even Fresno City Hall isn’t allowed to pull the ol’ switcheroo of using one law to determine guilt and another law to compute the penalty.

There can be no doubt that Reddemann was guilty on all three counts, Flores wrote. But the $7,500 fine applies only to the plywood violation. The laws cited for the other two violations permit a fine of only $200 for first-time violations, he wrote.

Reddemann’s bill was suddenly cut to $7,900 from $22,500. The obvious implication was that Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council merely have to rewrite the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance, and Code Enforcement Division Manager Del Estabrooke merely has to retrain his inspectors on how to properly write citations, for City Hall to thoroughly crush its landlord/slumlord enemies.

Flores’ second theme in his decision is more far-reaching for the future of Fresno.

Flores had to show that a $7,500 fine (at the least) for violating any portion of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance is both just and Constitutional.

This would be no small feat. Lurking in the background were the four established opinions from the city’s other hearing officer. Johnson had already told the public that a $7,500 fine per violation is dangerously close to violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines.

Flores cited case law to walk the reader through the legal thinking on excessive fines. He said courts have identified “thresholds” to guide a judge’s analysis.

Is the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance’s fine “mandatory and mechanical”? Yes, Flores said. The $7,500 fine is levied after the landlord has failed within 30 days to fix the violations. There’s no provision to fine the landlord for only 10 or 20 of those 30 days. The full 30 is set in stone.

Are there “potentially limitless penalties”? Yes, Flores said. In practice so far, he said, the city is quick to re-inspect a property after the 30-day period. It’s at this time that the citation with its $7,500 fine is sent to the landlord. But, Flores said, the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance theoretically allows “for vast amounts of time between initial inspection and actual issue of a citation.” At $250 per day, Flores said, that “affords a potential opportunity to create virtually limitless penalties.”

Does the fine exceed “those for similar or more serious violations”? Flores said yes, but only after he had spent a good deal of time clearing his throat.

Johnson had tackled the same question by comparing the $7,500 per violation fine in the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance to the much smaller fine imposed on a property owner who fails to remove tall weeds on a vacant lot – a fire hazard. Johnson said a strong case can be made that tall dry weeds on a vacant lot are a more serious health/safety issue than plywood covering a window frame.

Flores said such an argument is noteworthy, but “it could also be argued that weeds and dry grass in vacant lots is not similar or more serious than blight. While that specific condition may be considered a more immediate and historically more frightening danger than blight, blight is a much more complex, farther reaching and potentially more damaging violation than dry weeds and grass.”

Setting all that aside, Flores said, it is “indisputable” that “even a minimum violation of the Blight Ordinance allows for a much higher potential fine than similar violations.”

On the surface, the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance appeared to have failed three major “excessive fine” tests. But, Flores said, case law allows a judge to consider other factors such as “motivation, egregiousness of conduct, harm caused, ability to pay and the penalty as a deterrence.”

It was here that City Hall rallied to smack down LaDonna Reddemann.

Flores said Reddemann’s failure to fix the violations “seems to be lack of time or refusal to adhere” to the law’s demands. Flores said there’s no evidence that Reddemann is too poor to fix things. In fact, Flores said, son-in-law Kim testified that the family decided to put the property up for sale only after receiving the Notice of violation from City Hall.

“It appears from the evidence that instead of attempting to address the violations and attempt to remedy the violations, they decided to pass along the problems to a potential buyer,” Flores said.

Granted, Flores said, the family has gone through many trials of late. But, he added, “they could have hired someone to correct the violations at any time.”

Flores also found that Reddemann’s behavior was “sufficiently egregious” to justify the $7,500 fine. Flores noted that there had been a fire in the building’s basement. He noted that, according to testimony, transients had broken into the building several times.

“This would indicate that the potential for actual harm to persons in the structure due to fire or deterioration of the structure or fire damage to adjoining properties is very real and very high,” Flores said. “… Appellant’s failure to address the violations when possible to do so could reasonably result in harm to both the property and the neighborhood.”

Flores in his decision made no mention of the December 2015 fire at a vacant house on North Archie Avenue in east-central Fresno. Transients had pried off a piece of plywood covering one of the windows and climbed inside. A subsequent fire blocked that lone exit.

Five people died. The tragedy reverberated throughout Fresno. Flores in his decision had no need to remind Fresno of the potential dangers when transients and private property mix at night.

Flores said Reddemann, who had already sold several nearby properties, clearly has the money to pay the $7,500 fine. In fact, Flores said, she has the money to pay the full $22,500 of the original fine. There is nothing “confiscatory” about City Hall’s action, Flores said.

But there was one “factor” above all that persuaded Flores to decide City Hall can fine a landlord $7,500 for a single violation of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance.

Deterrence.

Flores said City Hall “has great deference in enacting ordinances and their penalties under the police power provided by State and Federal Constitutions. Here the legislative goal to combat blight is important to the health, safety and financial welfare of its citizens. The ordinance helps to achieve that goal, and serious consequences for violation of those ordinances is an effective deterrence to wide spread blight problems.”

It’s clear from Flores’ decision that the late Jack Reddemann and his wife viewed their family legacy at 615 N. First Street as an asset to be managed responsibly in a world changing in ways no one can fathom or direct.

The house was built in 1913. World War I was still in the future. Urban Fresno at the time was far away.

A century later – well, you and I know all about today’s Fresno.

That is what makes Flores’ decision in Fresno City Hall v. LaDonna Reddemann so interesting. Flores didn’t merely address the written words of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance. You know – simple stuff like whether there was Lexan or plywood on the building’s front window.

What Flores did was to don his social scientist cap. He found the presence of “blight” to be a public policy emergency of such seriousness that it justifies the full range of City Hall’s policing powers. He found enablers of blight – landlords/slumlords – to be the class of people causing Fresno’s problems.

Let’s return to Flores’ comparison of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance and city laws against tall weeds on vacant lots. The latter, a fire hazard, can be easily resolved with a tractor and disc.

“With blight,” Flores said, “this ‘fix’ is much more time consuming, wide spread and over time has much more devastating consequences. Blight negatively impacts the safety, health and aesthetics of an entire neighborhood and, if not checked, quickly spreads and increases its negative consequences to the whole City.

“To combat blight, the City must consider and provide long term solutions to its economically disadvantaged citizens, funds to repair, replace or demolish structures, and ways to help prevent the spread of blight or the reoccurrence of blight in existing neighborhoods.

“This takes much more time, resources and consideration than mere abatement of dry weeds. And, arguably, while the fire danger of unattended weeds and grass could be detrimental to several surrounding properties, unchecked blight will adversely affect vast areas of the City and its citizens.”

I’ll bet Jack Reddemann never thought he’d be the spark of class war.

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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