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The challenges in regulating, cleaning up Fresno's underground housing market

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Michael Flores showed me how hard it is to clean up underground housing in Fresno.

The Downtown library showed me how easy it is to fall into the trap of underground housing.

Flores, of course, is City Hall’s independent administrative hearing officer. He presides over appeals from landlords upset with the way they’ve been treated by the Code Enforcement Division.

Most of the time Code Enforcement wins, hands down. Fresno, step by step, is better for it.

The processes of Code Enforcement are many. That means the array of appeals before Flores is varied. Take, for example, the small apartment complex at 3249 E. Normal Avenue.

The complex is in the Mayfair District in Central Fresno. I wrote a piece for CVObserver about the complex last August. Code Enforcement had found four major problems at the complex:

  • Damaged and/or missing doors on the garage units in the back of the property.
  • An illegal conversion of one of the garage units into a living space and/or storage space without first obtaining permits and inspections.
  • Failure to obtain a fire report to determine the damage attributable to a recent fire at the property.
  • The presence of garbage and rubbish on the property and along the alley in back.

A code inspector checked out the property in March. Property owner Jesse Adkins was given a month to fix things. Things weren’t fixed, so the city issued a citation in April.

Adkins appealed. Flores in his August decision saw things in the city’s favor. Adkins was told to pay $800 in fines ($200 per violation) and get things fixed. Flores scheduled a progress hearing in September to verify Adkins’ compliance.

The existence of the progress hearing in this appeal process is further proof of City Hall’s serious intentions toward Code Enforcement. The progress hearing is a relatively recent creation of the City Council. The name explains all. City Hall is saying to landlords: “It’s bad enough that you’ve created a blighted property, harming the neighborhood order. We’re not going to compound the sin by letting you drag your heels in cleaning up the mess.”

Flores has authority to double the fines if the progress hearing shows no progress.

Events, though, can throw a wrench in the works. That’s what happened with the 3249 E. Normal case.

First, there were repeated delays to the progress hearing. It was originally scheduled for Sept. 15. Adkins received several postponements for what Flores would later describe as “personal health issues.” The Nov. 8 hearing was essentially worthless because an equipment malfunction ruined Adkins’ attempt to participate via speakerphone.

Adkins finally got his progress hearing on Dec. 14. We’re talking more than eight months after City Hall first got the complaint about conditions at 3249 E. Normal, more than seven months after the citation was issued, more than four months after Flores upheld the $800 in fines, almost three months after the progress hearing was originally scheduled.

Flores on Dec. 14 was told by city inspector John Tanksley that Adkins was 30% to 33% done with all necessary repairs. Flores was in a generous mood. He deemed that to be substantial progress, as required by city law if the fines weren’t to be immediately doubled.

Adkins was told to get everything finished within 30 days. Flores told everyone to come back Jan. 19 for the second and final progress hearing.

Adkins didn’t show up on Jan. 19. Flores went ahead with the hearing, essentially telling the record that “enough is enough!”

In the end, Flores in his Jan. 24 decision doubled three of the four individual fines. Adkins now owes City Hall $1,400 instead of $800.

Adkins “has failed to honor his promise to the City and to the Hearing Officer that he would complete repairs to his Property and maintain his property within City standards,” Flores wrote in his seven-page decision. “Both the City and the Hearing Officer have been patient, and given him more than ample time to complete repairs.”

Nor should Adkins assume an extra $600 is going to buy him goodwill in the near-term, Flores warned.

“Even with the added penalties,” Flores wrote, Adkins “is still required to correct those violations outstanding on his Property, or be cited yet again by the City, with higher fines assessed, or perhaps even have a criminal complaint filed against him, with all the serious penalties such charges may bring.”

It was the second of the four individual violations that didn’t merit a doubling of the fine. This violation was illegally converting a garage into a living space.

As noted in my first report for CVObserver, I had made a walking tour of the garage area on East Normal last August. It sure seemed possible to me that, as alleged in the original code inspection report, someone had been living in one of the garage units.

There’s nothing wrong with this – if the landlord first gets all necessary permits. Adkins had not done that.

Flores in his Jan. 24 decision said this violation appears to have been corrected. I use the word “appears” because Flores’ judgment in the landlord’s favor is hardly ringing.

“Since the original hearing,” Flores wrote, “the documentary and testimonial evidence has seemed to indicate that Appellant has removed the occupants illegally using the garage as a living space or as a place for business.”

Personal items remained in one of the garage units, Flores wrote, but they “seem to be there strictly as storage items and not as evidence that someone is continuing to occupy the garage.”

The code enforcement saga at 3249 E. Normal isn’t over, but at least it’s headed in a new direction. Justice for the Mayfair District has been delayed repeatedly, but it has not been denied.

What intrigued me from the beginning about the 3249 E. Normal case was the tenant in the illegal garage-as-apartment.

How much “underground” housing do we have in Fresno? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has attempted an estimate, or tried to define the issue. I’m guessing there are plenty of fly-by-night living arrangements out there. They don’t attract the same kind of media notice as identifiable landlords operating identifiable rental units. But human beings live there.

I took a drive to City Hall early Monday afternoon. I had finished my Media, Communication and Journalism class at Fresno State. My goal was to return a book to the Downtown Library on Mariposa Street, then check in with City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff.

As I tell my students, you’ve got to work your beat every day.

A woman was sitting on one of the chairs next to the book-return bin inside the library. We chatted as I retrieved the book from my backpack.

“Are you a lawyer?” she asked. I was wearing a tie.

“No, I’m just an old man,” I said.

She was dead serious.

“Do you have a garage?”

I thought: Trouble’s coming.

“Yes, my wife and I have a garage at our home.”

“I’ll take it. I’ll sleep anywhere. I need something. I have an income, but I’ve been evicted.”

Things proceeded rapidly from there. I suggested she contact MAP Point at The Pov. The acronym stands for Multi-Access Agency Program. Then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin and various community leaders unveiled this social-services alliance two years ago this week. I wrote in The Bee at the time about the leaders’ high hopes.

The whole point of MAP Point at The Pov (as in Poverello House) is that vulnerable people such as this woman shouldn’t have to go up to strangers in the library and beg to pay to sleep in their garage. The Fresno metropolitan area, in theory, has enough resources and smarts to effectively address this particular policy/humanitarian challenge.

MAP Point at The Pov apparently still has some bugs. The woman said she had gone there, but got little satisfaction. She said her income (I didn’t ask how much or from where) disqualified her from further help.

Our conversation didn’t last long. Another woman (I sensed she was a library employee) came up. Those two got to talking. I left.

Now, I realize that the woman who asked about my garage may have been full of nonsense. You bump into all sorts of folks on the streets of Fresno.

At the same time, this brief encounter does hint at another part of the complex dynamic that is rental housing in our city. Somebody with a few bucks needs a steady roof over his head. Somebody with an empty corner in his garage or woodshed needs a few extra bucks. The rest is history.

I headed over to Standriff’s City Hall office thinking: It’s not fair to put responsibility for regulating all rental housing in Fresno on the Mayor’s shoulders.

Then again, Lee Brand wasn’t drafted into the job.


Photo: The Fresno Bee

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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