Council approved new police compensation structure and public comments on water main break.

Members of the board of commissioners of the Housing Authorities of the City and County of Fresno voiced strong support for renewing the agency’s $194,363 annual contract with the Fresno Police Department, despite pleas from community members to reconsider during its Tuesday evening meeting.

Several community organizations — including the Central Valley Urban Institute, Fresno Barrios Unidos, Council on American Islamic Relations, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center, Black Women for Wellness and Faith in the Valley — condemned the agency’s relationship with the police department.

“We have 30 years of systemic issues built into the Housing Authority’s relationship with the police,” said Kiel Lopez-Schmidt, design consultant on 5 Fresno Housing Authority developments, urging commissioners to “request data from the Fresno Police Department, look into the arrests, violent confrontations and who has been excluded from housing.”

Marisa Moraza, youth advocacy and leadership manager for Barrios Unidos, said she represented the youth who are residents of public housing in Fresno.

“Folks do not want to invest in the police,” Moraza said. “Continued investment in police — a system built on harm and white supremacy, and rooted in racism — is that really what we need to build vibrant communities and ensure the safety and well being of our residents?”

Of the 12 commissioners, eight spoke about the topic, but only Adrian Jones, chair of the Fresno city arm of the board, did not immediately endorse extending the contract with the police.

“I am very aware of everything that has been said and the truth of everything that has been said,” Jones said. “We hear you, and we will continue to hear you for however long this process is expected to take in order for us to for us to come together with something everyone is happy with.”

Other board members, including Sharon Williams and Ruby Yanez, who are residents of public housing in southwest Fresno, voiced strong support for continuing the relationship with the Fresno Police department.

“I appreciate the police,” Williams said. “I don’t see us going forward without police protection.” She said that the agency should stay with the contract while looking for better ways to resolve issues with the police.

Yanez said she worries “about safety if we don’t have a police officer on site.”

Before the commissioners spoke, Tracewell Hanrahan, deputy executive director, provided an overview of the agency’s 30-year relationship with the Fresno Police Department. She said that under the purchasing authority, the agency’s CEO does not require board action to renew the contract.

“The board and the staff,” Hanrahan said, “wanted to have public discussion about the services provided by Fresno PD.”

The agency would engage with the public and all stakeholders, gauge community feelings about the renewal, and solicit their thoughts on how to proceed. Housing Authority staff will follow the proceedings of the newly constituted police reform commission closely.

Hanrahan said that the current agreement expires on June 30, but that the agency is in talks with the police department to continue providing services until the public conversation is completed.

Should police get housing funds?

“We believe the partnership and the contract have been positive for the residents, the neighborhood and the agency,” said Brandi Johnson, communications manager for the Housing Authority. “The personalized engagement with a dedicated officer provides consistency and has been well-received by residents, based on feedback received over the years in various settings.”

But even before the board met on Tuesday, some members of the community stated their opposition to extending the contract, questioning the appropriateness of the relationship between the police and an agency that serves a largely low-income population.

“By no means should housing dollars be going to law enforcement,” said Ashley Rojas, executive director of Fresno Barrios Unidos and a member of the newly created police reform commission.

“Paying the Fresno Police Department is a total misallocation of resources,” she said. “Housing resources should go towards housing.”

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Johnson said that the police officers provide an essential service of community policing and security for the residents.

As of June 1, the Housing Authority has paid the Fresno Police Department $149,297 of the contract amount of $194,363; in exchange, two police officers work all their shifts at the Housing Authority development properties. The fee covers the officers’ salaries and benefits.

“We use the same officers, so that the community, the kids recognize them and know them,” Johnson said. “It is not a different officer every day.”

Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, a policy advocacy organization that is a watchdog for the Housing Authority, voiced opposition to the contract renewal during the meeting. He said the contract is problematic.

“We need to be investing in alternative forms of care, alternative forms of safety and emergency response,” Payne said. “Instead, residents are meeting lethal outcomes and disproportionate arrests in their communities.”

He asked why the police were contracting services to another public agency.

“It gives the perception of ‘pay to play,’” he said. “If this is about security, why not hire a security firm?”

But many of the residents, Johnson said, say the officers “increase their feelings of safety in their neighborhoods. They do not feel security firms provide the same level of service.”

Policing Black and brown communities

Payne said that the Housing Authority has a long history of not caring for its tenants. For example, the agency did not start residence services until 2009. He and others have had conversations with the Housing Authority. “We opposed them in 2018 when they supported the present police contract,” he said. “The board voted to support it; there are some real challenges that the board needs to process.”

The Housing Authority is the largest property owner in the city of Fresno. It serves approximately 50,000 residents throughout Fresno County and provides three types of housing services.

The housing choice voucher program issues 13,000 HUD vouchers to about 38,000 people, including approximately 17,000 children.

Under this system (also known as Section 8), qualified tenants choose where to live and use the voucher to subsidize their rent.

The second type of housing accommodates about 11,000 residents, including 5,500 children, who live in public housing, located throughout Fresno County. Residents must meet income requirements to be eligible.

The Fresno Housing Authority provides a third type of housing assistance through a mix of low-income housing tax credits, grants, and/or conventional funding.

Payne argues that using the police to do work that can be done through other means contributes to the “over policing of Black and brown communities.”

Rojas said Fresno police “need to take a good hard look at themselves before they ask for more opportunities to interact with our community.”

Most of the people who receive services from the Housing Authority are from communities of color. Of the people who opt for vouchers, 55% are Hispanic; 26% are Black; 12% are white, and 8% are Asian.

Among the residents of public housing, 77% are Hispanic; 12% are Black; 4% are white and 5% are Asian.

“It is incredibly disappointing that they will use funds meant for vulnerable populations to criminalize that same population,” Rojas said.

Payne said the residents’ lease agreement is tied to eviction, based on police response calls. “Every call attached to a resident is recorded.”

“There have been tenants who have received eviction because of that,” Payne said. “Some residents are making the calls just to get others evicted.”

Spending the money

Rojas and Payne argue that the Housing Authority should listen to what the residents would prefer rather than use the police. Payne presented results of a survey of about 200 public housing residents, which was conducted by the Central Valley Urban Institute. According to the survey results, the residents prioritized workforce training, youth programming, strong and viable tenant associations and receiving COVID-19 recovery funds over whatever benefits the police contract afforded them.

“Residents have identified for themselves what they need and their preferences in far more positive ways to impact their lives,” Rojas said, “using those funds to be more successful at their journey to wellness in place of law enforcement.”

Payne advocates alternative forms of public safety — the intervention prevention plans, training, more investments and the use of the COVID-19 recovery effort.

“The Housing Authority should put that money directly in the hands of the families,” he said.

Payne said after the meeting that he was deeply disappointed but not surprised by the attitude of most members of the board of commissioners.

“This only reinforces the systemic racism that is inflicted on low-income and marginalized communities every day,” he said. “We recognize we have some serious work ahead of us.”

Dympna Ugwu-Oju is an editor with the Fresnoland Lab, a focused team of journalists within The Bee reporting on affordable housing, development, water, and neighborhood inequality in the central San Joaquin Valley.

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