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Summerset Crisis ignites face-off over code enforcement

7.) Swearengin at the time said it was best to tackle the outside of residential buildings in Phase One of the code enforcement reform process. The insides would be tackled in Phase Two. Many activists wondered whether Phase Two would ever happen and, if it did, whether City Hall’s commitment to actually putting pressure on landlords would be, well, firm.

8.) FIRM itself, especially under the direction of the now-departed Rev. Sharon Stanley some five to 10 years ago, was a consistent and passionate public advocate for stronger residential code enforcement. FIRM and code enforcement pressure on City Hall – the two were synonymous among local reporters.

9.) The Summerset Crisis will play out in especially dramatic fashion for at least another two weeks. It may take that long just to get the natural gas flowing again. The city is almost certain to have a long list of code enforcement violations. Swearengin promised all would be fixed (at Henry’s expense) before City Hall rested. That could take months. Council members and reporters will want periodic updates on everything, keeping the story alive. Then there’s the possibility of lawsuits. Pick your plaintiffs and defendants – there are many possible combinations. All those activists who thought Swearengin was too soft on landlords – they’ll be watching and remembering everything. They’re probably filming as we speak. Bottom line: the Mayor had the trump cards in the first Code Enforcement Task Force go-around; the activists figure to have the much better hand next time.

10.) Perhaps that explains the unusual nature of Swearengin’s comments on Wednesday. As promised, she began with the facts and figures of any emergency update: People served, agencies involved, powers exercised for the public’s good.

Then she said the following. She begins by referring to her phone conversation with Henry on Wednesday.

“I expressed to him on behalf of our entire community how deeply deeply angry we feel about the conditions in the Summerset apartment complex,” Swearengin said. “Our residents deserve better than this. As outraged as I am about what’s happened here at Summerset, I am equally as troubled knowing that there are thousands of substandard housing units in our city today.

“I wish I could stand here today and tell the people of Fresno that this extremely unfortunate incident in our community is an anomaly and that it’s very unlikely to happen anywhere else in the city. But unfortunately I can’t say that. The reality is that it could happen in dozens and dozens of other locations across Fresno.

“The obvious reaction to that reality is we need more code enforcement. And that is absolutely true. We do need more code enforcement in Fresno. And that’s why I was so relieved to be able to add more code enforcement officers in our budget in June. That’s the first time we’ve been able to make those additions to our city (staff) because of the fiscal constraints of the Great Recession. And that’s the first time in my seven years in office we’ve been able to do so.

“As much as it is absolutely true that we need more code enforcement in our city, it is also true that code enforcement deals with symptoms, and never gets to the root issue. We will always be playing catch up if all we do is go after the condition of substandard housing with code enforcement as our only tool. To the best of our ability, my administration has sought to go after root causes that have created an inner-city that is one of the most neglected in the United States.

“We have made major changes to land use policy. This has been our priority, to create a more inviting environment for private investment in neighborhoods like this one instead of the neglect that we’ve seen for decades upon decades.

“Our 2035 general plan update, our new development code, the downtown revitalization efforts, the neighborhood revitalization teams that were new additions with my administration, our Building Neighborhood Capacity program, Restore Fresno, phase one of our Code Enforcement Task Force and phase two that will commence in January, doubling down on transit investments.

“All of these are examples of work to begin to address the root problems in inner-city Fresno. I pledge to you today that these efforts will continue to be my focus for next 13 months and two weeks and two days. With that I will sign this emergency declaration.”

That sounds like someone worried about the next round of Code Enforcement Task Force meetings.

11.) And that’s why I left the Wednesday news conference thinking: “Phase two of the Code Enforcement Task Force won’t begin in January. It began today.”

12.) But there’s something I don’t understand.

You see, code enforcement in Fresno has always been a highly politicized issue and is even more so these days.

The activists who say City Hall should use its powers to regulate what landlords do with the insides of their rental houses/apartments have long been frustrated with how to get their complex message across to the general public.

FIRM, as is clear to anyone who watched years of city hearings on the 2035 general plan and other land-use policies, is an important and effective part of Fresno’s wide and growing network of progressive, social justice nonprofits/voluntary associations.

FIRM headquarters, as is clear to any reporter over the years who periodically dropped by its offices for interviews, seems to get a steady stream of visitors among the tenants at Summerset Village apartments.

The distance between several fence gates along the western edge of Summerset and the front fence gate at FIRM Headquarters/Summerset Community Center can be traversed with a slow stroll in a few minutes or less.

Caring for the health of its clients is a primary part of FIRM’s reason to exist.

FIRM’s funding (according to the nonprofits website) comes in part from The United Way of Fresno County, The California Endowment, First Five Fresno County, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the City of Fresno’s Code Enforcement Division.

FIRM therefore has a responsibility to taxpayers.

The deterioration of Summerset’s roofs and outside walls almost certainly was years in the making. The same most likely could be said of any problems inside the apartments.

Summerset’s natural gas pipelines (in the ground, impossible for anyone to see simply by walking by) apparently failed completely sometime around November 13.

According to a written story published online Nov. 20 by Channel 24 reporter Stefanie Bainum, Summerset’s tenants had been without heat or gas for a week.

Bainum quoted FIRM Executive Director Zach Darrah as saying of Summerset’s residents: “They hadn’t had a shower in 7 days. I had children say they hadn’t slept all week and haven’t showered or had proper food because they couldn’t cook either.”

Bainum quoted Council Member Clint Olivier, who represents the area, as saying: “I just wish they hadn’t waited 8 days to call me.”

According to Bainum’s report, Summerset’s residents (as many as 1,000 in number) suffered in this manner for a full week before anyone was contacted at City Hall.

FIRM’s mission, according to its website, is: “Sharing Christ’s love to build communities of hope with new Americans.”

Both Swearengin and Darrah, in response to questions from me at Wednesday’s news conference, said they didn’t know off the tops of their heads how many times, if at all, FIRM had contacted the Code Enforcement Division with complaints about alleged code violations at Summerset.

I don’t understand: FIRM didn’t know long ago about the code-enforcement troubles at Summerset Village apartments? FIRM didn’t know within 24 hours of the natural gas pipeline failures that as many as 1,000 people living right across the street were without hot water, heat and all the other basic necessities of life that natural gas makes possible? FIRM didn’t know that children using the Summerset Community Center had gone one, two, three days and more without sleep?

Apparently not.

If that’s true, FIRM also needs help.

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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