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Why is Code Enforcement struggling to win "slumlord" cases?

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Something odd is happening in Fresno City Hall’s code enforcement division.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think inspectors are purposely making silly mistakes when writing up Mom-and-Pop landlords – make that “slumlords” in this witch-hunt era – for alleged code violations.

Why would the inspectors do that? Maybe to give these small-scale property owners another opportunity to get their act together before hitting them with financial ruin.

Take, for example, the case of Lana D. Williams, owner of a house at 1506 N. Rowell Ave. in Central Fresno.

City officials cited Williams for code violations at the house. Williams appealed. Hearing officer Michael Flores handled the case.

In the end, Flores upheld a small portion of the original fine. Williams got more time to fix things. He could face more fines if nothing is done.

What interests me in this case isn’t Williams’ failure to keep his yard clean. What’s interesting is the city’s continuing failure to write a “slumlord” citation that holds up to judicial scrutiny.

Flores and his fellow hearing officer, Ed Johnson, have been giving City Hall a tutorial in their decisions on how to properly write such a citation. Flores is relatively new to the job, but Johnson has been hammering away on this theme for several years.

Yet, the mistakes persist and fines keep getting reduced. Good for the appellant, bad for city coffers.

This can’t be a coincidence, can it?

Flores cut right to the chase in his nine-page decision.

“The history of this case and the subsequent appeal,” he wrote, “is somewhat convoluted and confusing.”

Flores does a good job of summarizing.

The city on July 31, 2015 did its first inspection of 1506 N. Rowell. The Williams house was blighted and vacant, with “furniture, trash & litter, cement block throughout property, port-a-potty in front yard, fenced (sic) damaged throughout property, dry/tall weeds, dead plants, trim tree in front yard,” according to the city report.

The city found the same mess during a second inspection on Sept. 11, 2015.

The official “Blighted Property Notice of Violation” was issued on Oct. 27, 2015. The cover letter said the property was in violation of the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance (section 10-617 of the municipal code – please fix the figure “10-617” in your memory because you most likely will see it often in future CVObserver stories).

Williams faced seven separate violations:

1.) Junk.

2.) Tall/dry weeds or grass.

3.) Overgrown landscaping.

4.) Damaged/unsafe fencing.

5.) Fence built with unapproved material.

6.) Front fence too high.

7.) Damaged address identification numbers.

Williams was given 30 days to fix everything.

As you may recall, the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance fixes a fine of $250 per violation per day. You’ve got junk in your front yard. It’s there for two days. Your fine is $500.

But let’s say the junk stays in your front yard for the entire 30 days that the city gives you to clean up the stuff. Thirty multiplied by $250 equals $7,500. You’re hit with a $7,500 fine for having junk in your front yard for those 30 days.

Well, Williams clearly had a messed up front yard. A layman might have looked at things and considered the yard to be just one giant mess, thus one violation. Not City Hall. Inspectors divided the mess into its component parts, and considered each part a separate violation worthy of a $7,500 fine.

Seven violations multiplied by $7,500 – Williams was looking at a total fine of $105,000 if he didn’t get to work.

But that’s not all. Recent additions to the municipal code allow the hearing officer to double the fines if a landlord is deemed to be especially slow or combative.

That’s right – Williams’ fine could have doubled to $210,000.

But that’s not all. Revised city code also allows the hearing officer to take a slow-moving landlord to Superior Court if necessary.

That’s right – Williams’ ugly front yard, in theory, could have cost him $210,000 plus a spell in the Fresno County jail.

Who says City Hall isn’t serious about rooting out slumlordism?

On Nov. 3, a week after the “Blighted Property Notice of Violation” was issued, Williams called City Hall. He said he was still living in the house, but had recently gone into the hospital to have his leg amputated. Williams said his son also lives in the house.

Inspectors returned to the house on Dec. 3. Five of the violations had been cleaned up to their satisfaction. But two violations persisted – junk piled in the front yard, unsafe fencing.

The city issued a citation – called the “First Administrative Citation” – on Dec. 7. Williams was hit with a $7,500 fine for each of the remaining violations. That’s a total fine of $15,000.

Inspectors returned to 1506 N. Rowell on Jan. 8. There had been no change to the piles of junk or bad fencing. The inspectors said the house still appeared to be vacant.

Another 30 days had passed since the “First Administrative Citation,” the ticket that sparked the original $15,000 fine. You can guess what happened next. The city issued a “Second Administrative Citation” on Jan. 12 with another $15,000 fine.

Williams was looking at fines totaling $30,000.

The city inspected the property two more times over the next two months. In that period a neighbor called City Hall to complain about Williams’ yard.

“The citizen complained that the junk and rubbish throughout the property created an eyesore,” Flores wrote.

Inspectors said the place still appeared to be vacant.

The appeal was heard by Flores on May 19. Neither Williams nor his son appeared.

Anyone who follows these appeal hearings quickly learns that code inspectors are enthusiastic photographers. The city’s side is always buttressed with plenty of photos. Williams was doomed in one regard. Photos clearly showed his place to be an eyesore unacceptable to any self-respecting neighborhood.

But photography is only one part of the city’s charge. The inspectors also have to give the landlord in writing a clear idea of what he’s done wrong and the specific laws he is violating.

Here’s where the city stumbled. In essence, Williams was told on one piece of paper that he was violating the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance (10-617). But on another piece of paper, he was told that he’s violating other ordinances. On this second piece of paper, 10-617 wasn’t mentioned.

Flores didn’t like this inconsistency. Inspectors at the May 19 responded by saying Williams should have known that mention of 10-617 on one piece of paper means 10-617 applies to any other piece of paper connected to the citation.

Nice try, Flores wrote, but not good enough. Each time a violation is listed in a citation, Flores said, the city would be wise to cite all of the pertinent code sections. This provides clarity to the property owner and reduces the city’s risk, Flores wrote.

“Further, there is nothing in the language of 10-617 indicating that it was meant to be included with every other property related public nuisance section in the Municipal Code,” Flores wrote. “In fact, its penalty provision is unlike most others in the entire FMC (Fresno Municipal Code). Its uniqueness as an ordinance is evidence that it was mean to be specifically and separately cited.”

Flores said Williams hadn’t received adequate notice to fix things under the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance (10-617). But Williams had received adequate notice to fix things under other city laws.

The front yard junk and the bad fence each got $200 fines based on the first citation. These fines, by law, aren’t levied daily. Total fine: $400.

The front yard junk and the bad fence each got $500 fines based on the second citation. These fines, bylaw, aren’t levied daily. Total fine: $1,000.

Williams had been looking at $30,000 in fines. Instead, he was fined a total of $1,400.

And he didn’t even show up for his own appeal.

Williams isn’t out of the woods. Flores will hold a progress hearing on July 12 to see if Williams is diligently fixing the remaining code violations.

“If it is determined that he has not made substantial progress, then the Hearing Officer will order payment of double the maximum fines permitted by the FMC for such conditions,” Flores wrote.

Flores also could take things to Superior Court.

As a former deputy city attorney in Fresno, Flores knows how City Hall works. To talk to Flores for any length of time is know he has the highest respect for challenging but vital work done by city employees on behalf of the community. So, he’s not one to literally grab code inspectors by the coat lapels and shout, “Can’t you write a citation?”

But Flores did as much in his written decision on the Williams appeal.

“As this Hearing Officer has mentioned in previous decisions,” Flores wrote, “it is strongly recommended (emphasis in original) that, in order to completely eliminate any confusion and therefore, any potential legal issue regarding the Blighted Vacant Building Ordinance, the City should specifically cite section 10-617 or the appropriate subsection in each and every blight related condition to be corrected.”

I gotta believe City Hall is messing up on purpose – for now. Take heed, landlords.

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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