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Table-setting over Summerset fight begins

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Michael Flores, one of two independent administrative hearing officers at Fresno City Hall, was busy last week.

The state of Fresno’s housing stock was at the center of Flores’ work. I give you three examples.

1.) As already reported in CVObserver, the hearing on Summerset Village Apartments owner Chris Henry’s code-enforcement appeal is slated to begin Sept. 26.

Flores has set aside the entire week of Sept. 26-30 to hear testimony. He expects quite a crowd, so has reserved the Council Chamber.

Henry is facing $290,000 in fines for 1,450 alleged code citations. Summerset Village was national news last November when a series of bureaucratic miscues, oversights and questionable decisions led to hundreds of residents going days without natural gas service.

Flores thinks Henry’s hearing will be a complex affair. He told me last week that he almost certainly will hold a pre-hearing meeting with representatives from Henry’s camp and City Hall to hammer out rules of operation.

For example, Flores said, does the city make its case for each of the 1,450 citations all at once, followed by the total response from Henry’s lawyer? Or should the point-counterpoint be done in smaller chunks, say, building by building in the sprawling Summerset complex?

Flores said he’s leaning toward the latter model.

Why should the public care about this preliminary jousting? Because Flores said the pre-hearing hearing will be open to the public. The site may not be the Council Chamber. Most likely it will be the modest-sized conference room (2165A) across the hall from the City Clerk’s Office.

Flores said he will return to City Hall after a few days of vacation on Sept. 5. He expects to settle on a date and time for the pre-hearing hearing soon thereafter.

The event will be our first public look at the City Hall vs. Henry battle in flesh and blood.

2.) Flores on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 17, heard the appeal of a public nuisance citation at 4242 E. Olive Ave. in east-central Fresno (a bit east of Cedar Avenue). A small apartment complex is on the property.

Code inspector Ronald Becerril appeared for the city. No one appeared for owner Manuel Sanches (cq).

The key question in my opinion: Does a landlord turn into a “slumlord” when the big problem appears to be society, not the owner’s alleged incompetence or lack of commitment?

Flores in his decision wrote that Becerril was assigned to the property in March when a tenant complained of mold and mildew in a bathroom. Becerril inspected the apartment in April. He found rubbish throughout the property.

“At that time,” Flores wrote, “Inspector Becerril testified that there were several individuals that seemed very dangerous on the Property, and he felt unsafe without being accompanied by a police officer.”

The city told Sanches to clean things up.

Becerril re-inspected the property in early May and “found the Fire Department there looking for a possible arsonist,” Flores wrote. “At that time, Inspector Becerril found that some clean-up of the junk and rubbish was being done. However, a re-inspection of the Property on May 12, 2016 found that the junk and rubbish had returned.”

While all this was going on, another code inspector went to the property with members of the city’s Homeless Task Force. The reason: Other tenants had complained about transients living at the complex.

Becerril returned to the property in June and, among other things, “found the laundry room occupied, with an electrical extension cord running from a unit to the laundry room illegally, broken windows, missing window screens and other general dilapidation.”

The pattern was set. City officials kept the pressure on Sanches, writing citations and revisiting the property. As the city noted, Sanches made periodic attempts to clean up the mess and encourage his tenants to be responsible. The cleanups were an exercise in futility. So, too, were the civics lectures.

“Inspector Becerril also testified that when he has contacted Appellant, he has always told him that he felt ‘overwhelmed’ with the Property and didn’t know how to handle things,” Flores wrote. “Additionally, the Appellant told Inspector Becerril that he didn’t want to evict the particular tenant causing the most trouble because he ‘paid his rent on time, every month.’”

Flores upheld the $500 fine for rubbish on the property and ordered Sanches to get rid of all the junk. Flores also scheduled a progress hearing for Sept. 21. If Sanches hasn’t made a substantial dent in the apartment complex’s trashy appearance, he could face doubled fines and a session in Superior Court.

This latter penalty is the result of a new city law aimed at cleaning up residential slums.

At some point, Flores wrote, another hearing will be held to determine whether Sanches “can maintain the Property in complete compliance with (city law) for a reasonable period of time.”

Hold that thought in your mind while I give you another sentence from Flores’ decision.

It is clear, Flores wrote, “that the junk and rubbish is a continual problem, and although there is evidence that Appellant has attempted to clear the Property several times, the violation persists.”

Go to the dictionary. Look up “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” You probably will find a photo of Manuel Sanches and 4242 E. Olive Ave.

3.) Barely a half-hour after the Sanches case, Flores heard another appeal that sheds much-needed context on the challenges of fighting so-called slumlords.

This one involved a house at 1730 B Street, near Fink-White Playground in West Fresno.

Inspector Russell Robinson appeared for the city. Ruben Rodarte appeared for La Jolla Group II, the property owner.

The key question in my opinion: Does the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance’s registry for vacant residential structures need a tweak or two?

According to Flores’ decision, Robinson testified that he was dispatched to the property on June 17. Neighbors had complained that the house and detached garage were vacant and had transients living in them.

Robinson didn’t find anyone on the property. It appeared that no one had broken into the house. However, the garage did appear to have been a home to transients. There were a couple of unsecured openings to the garage.

Robinson also said he couldn’t immediately determine who owned the property.

“As a result of the opening in the garage and possible fire and related health and safety concerns,” Flores wrote, Robinson “called for City contractors to secure the two openings by boarding them with approved materials.”

This is called a summary abatement. City Hall doesn’t mess around when there’s a dangerous situation on a property and the owner can’t be easily identified or contacted. The city immediately fixes the problem, then takes the time to track down the owner and send him the bill.

The whole point of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance’s registry to eliminate the identification/contact problem in situations exactly like 1730 B Street. All buildings expected to be vacant for more than 30 days are to be registered with the city at no cost to the owner. The registry includes the name of the property owner and his phone number.

“This registry is an important part of the city’s new vacant blighted property ordinance,” Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in February when the registry was unveiled. “Maintaining a list of vacant properties allows city staff to immediately reach a property owner if they encounter a problem on their site, and it allows the city to keep a closer eye on properties that are in jeopardy of falling into disrepair and affecting the surrounding neighborhood.”

But as this case shows, it’s not always a simple matter of determining when a property becomes vacant.

Flores wrote that Rodarte, La Jolla’s representative, said the company decided to sell the property in late March. La Jolla gave the tenants 60 days to leave.

Keep in mind that renters have legal rights, too.

Rodarte testified that he tried to contact the tenants several weeks before the 60-day period was up. Rodarte wanted to make sure the tenants were preparing to move. He also wanted to see if the structures needed any repairs.

Rodarte said he visited the property in May and determined the house to be empty. He then posted an 18-day notice of abandonment. This is a public declaration that the tenants left without telling the landlord and they’re not coming back.

“After the 18 day period expired,” Flores wrote, “one of Appellant’s contractors contacted Mr. Rodarte and informed him that there were people occupying the Property. Mr. Rodarte then testified that he was told that the people occupying the Property claimed a right to be on the Property, had stated that they had been there for a long period of time and would not leave.”

There followed a frustrating effort to get the police to help Rodarte boot the trespassers off the property. But the point of La Jolla’s appeal wasn’t transients. It was the city’s summary abatement of the garage.

Rodarte testified that “he was not informed of the summary abatement by the City, and that Appellant had always quickly responded to all City requirements for securing their properties within the City and complying with all City regulations,” Flores wrote.

Rodarte also testified that, due to the complexity of the eviction process, La Jolla representatives could not have legally entered the property until Aug. 16 – a day before the appeal hearing.

Flores sided with the city, saying the threat to public safety and the law support the city’s decision to do a summary abatement of the garage openings.

La Jolla would have to pay $430 for the abatement.

At the same time, Flores wrote, La Jolla’s record for complying with city code and cooperating with city officials “is impeccable.”

I wonder how this case and the 4242 E. Olive case fit into the “slumlord” and “evicted” narratives that are all the rage in the current national housing debate.

On second thought, never mind. Sanches and La Jolla need to be demonized. The end justifies the means.

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

1 Comment

  1. George, I’ve learned that truth is usually a combination of both sides of the story, a situation ordinances and laws oftentimes are ill designed to address. Your piece is an example of this. There are indeed landlords who are a disgrace, but there are also tenants who are too.

    Code and PD are dealing with a house on N Farris (824) that’s a prime example. Owner finally got the tenant out but the 13 transient gang members also living there refused to leave. They beat up the departing tenant who ended up in the hospital apparently badly dented. Oh yeah, the neighbor across the street is evidently affiliated with the thugs. It took Councilperson Soria’s office tweaking a few tails to get PD out there to deal with the thuggery.

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