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Fresno prepares for zealous code enforcement with many question marks

A SHINING CITY EVERYWHERE

The context begins in January 2009 when Ashley Swearengin is sworn in as mayor.

Swearengin had campaigned on a platform of revitalizing inner-city Fresno. Inner-city Fresno would later be deemed just about everything south of Shaw Avenue and much of what lies south of Herndon Avenue.

The years rolled by and things, as they always do, moved in unexpected directions.

The Great Recession may have begun in 2008, but it didn’t hit hard in Fresno until well into 2009. City revenues dropped. Services were cut. The size of the municipal workforce plummeted.

The code enforcement division, along with everything else, took its share of blows.

But Swearengin kept plugging along on her revitalization promises. A turning point came in April 2012 when the City Council endorsed an anti-sprawl theme for a new general plan then in the drafting stage.

There are many ideas trying to turn the general plan’s dream into reality. One of the key ideas was born in fall 2014 when Swearengin and the council formed the Code Enforcement Task Force.

This group of city, community and business leaders was huge. It was hard to find a conference room big enough for everyone.

The task force’s charge was simple: Come up with a reformed municipal housing code that guarantees excellent housing for all – then find a guaranteed way to implement everything.

That proved easier said than done.

Bottom line – the task force earlier this year pitched a Vacant Blighted Building Ordinance to the council. The proposal focused solely on the exteriors of vacant houses and their yards (plus some apartment complexes). The council made it law.

Community activists seethed. They said this so-called Phase One of the task force didn’t go far enough. They said the real injustice done to renters by slumlords occurs inside the house/apartment.

Sensing that a City Hall allegedly smitten with landlords had stacked the decked against them, the activists vowed to play a tougher game when the task force tackled Phase Two in early 2016.

But how would the activists change the dynamic?

That’s when events, uncomfortably dangerous and stunningly tragic turns, stepped in.

First came the fiasco at Summerset apartments.

When the dust finally cleared, it turned out that a.) City Hall didn’t know for eight days in November that the apartments had no natural gas; b.) apparently no one at Summerset or among the nearby community activists serving the complex thought to call City Hall during those eight days; c.) city officials would come to find more than 1,000 other code violations at the 220-unit complex; d.) Some 1,800 people, most of them of Southeast Asian heritage, were living there, a population way beyond the practical (and legal) capacity of the 220 rather small units.

Phase Two activists had their smoking gun of a failed code enforcement division if ever there was one.

Then came the vacant house fire at 1444 N. Archie Avenue in the early morning of Dec. 13. Squatters had pried off the covering on one of the windows. Five people died in the blaze.

City officials were quick to publicly note that code enforcement had been keeping a close eye on the house and its out-of-town owner. Lots of violations had been written up, lots of fines had been levied.

But it all just sat there as so much impotent digital paperwork. Phase Two activists had their second smoking gun of alleged incompetence.

Yet, when I added everything up, something odd seemed to be going on. I sensed that the Swearengin Administration had emerged from this mess with the bureaucratic momentum.

For starters, City Hall had moved quite swiftly and forcefully at Summerset. And, given the legal protections of any property owner and the sheer size of Fresno, the city seemed to have been doing all it could with the North Archie house. Who can regulate the actions of the homeless in the still of the night?

Then there are the implications of cops on the new Code Enforcement Strike Team.

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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