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Fresnoland, a team of journalists reporting on housing, water and neighborhood inequality at The Fresno Bee, is reporting on the city’s failure to protect renters from unhealthy conditions in low-income housing. Read the stories and follow this investigation here.

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Fresno city Councilmember Nelson Esparza called the living conditions in Manchester Arms apartments “wildly unacceptable” and said his office would take action to protect tenants, during a virtual meeting with them on Monday morning.

Three tenants told Esparza and his staff of dilapidated conditions, poor maintenance and bad behavior from the landlord that they experience living in the complex on Effie Street, which falls within Esparza’s district. The Fresno Bee published the results of an investigation into the apartment complex Monday as well as city code enforcement’s failure to address major code violations.

Code enforcement works out of the City Attorney’s Office and falls under the direction of Fresno City Council.

“My promise to you is that within the parameters of the law, we will take every single action that we can,” Esparza told the residents. “Code enforcement should be taking action of these things more proactively. It’s up to me, as their boss, to make sure that is happening.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “the buck stops with us.”

He said he will add Manchester Arms to the city’s “slum list” and request code enforcement to inspect every single unit in the 59-year-old complex, where water is leaking from kitchens and bathrooms into downstairs units in at least three apartments.

The city’s slum list is short-hand for properties prioritized by the Anti-Slum Enforcement Team, which is charged with pursuing the “worst violators” with “maximum fines, reimbursements, attorney fees, and other remedies such as receivership,” as defined in a 2016 policy.

Esparza was called about the apartment complex over a year ago when tenant Laura Denies was frustrated about a lack of hot water. Denies told The Bee he called her back on a Saturday and code enforcement was there within an hour.

Esparza told the tenants Monday that looking back, he had no idea the depth of the problems at that time.

“My office is now aware of the more structural issues at the complex,” he said. “There aren’t really any words for it.”

Tenants of Manchester Arms apartments in Fresno shared stories of their housing and code enforcement experiences during a virtual meeting using Zoom with Fresno city Councilmember Nelson Esparza, center, as shown in this screen shot taken the morning of March 29. From top left: City staff Leefong Mouavangsou, Fresno Bee reporter Monica Vaughan, tenant Laura Davies, tenant Inez Hernandez, Councilmember Esparza, tenant Nikki Maples-Phelps with family and Fresno Bee reporter Cassandra Garibay.

Evicted Manchester Arms tenant shows mold problem

Code enforcement has inspected units at the complex multiple times in the last two years but failed to enforce health and safety codes and hold the landlord, Gutierrez & Son LP, accountable to bring conditions into full compliance. Still, units in the complex have mold, water damage and broken appliances that fall short of meeting California’s habitability law.

Inez Hernandez showed Esparza code enforcement documentation of heavy mold in the unit she rents and expressed frustration that officers allowed a compliance deadline to pass without taking action against the landlord. Her family was evicted and moved out Monday.

She explained that her family is particularly vulnerable because one child has chronic asthma and the other is diabetic. “It’s not safe for my kids,” Hernandez told her elected official. “At the end of the day, if code enforcement would stick to the deadline, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Esparza told tenants he “was pretty upset,” when he learned of the conditions at the apartment complex and that he’s been talking with the city attorney and code enforcement since last Thursday, when The Bee shared the results of the investigation with him.

Code enforcement officers said they intend to perform more inspections this week.

Code violations weren’t the only issue discussed in the tenant meeting; residents also described experiencing retaliation from the landlord and of feeling unsafe in the neighborhood.

Fresno teen tells Esparza she doesn’t feel safe

Ciera Maples, a 14-year-old freshman of Hoover High School, read a letter out loud that she wrote to the city council during the virtual meeting held on Zoom.

“When me and my family first moved into this apartment complex, there was a sense of community. I felt safer when we first moved here. Our mailbox was never broken into. But now, it gets broken into almost every day. We have had mail that we wanted to send out be stolen. One year, on Christmas, all of our cards to family got stolen and no one got a card.”

She continued to explain her feelings of unease.

“Almost every time I go outside, someone is in the dumpster, and it is scary. I am afraid to walk my dog,” she said. “I just want to feel safe and have the necessities of life.”

Her mother, Nikki Maples-Phelps, told Esparza that she has received three-day notices from the landlord after she complained about a problem in the apartment complex. That adds to the pressures on tenants to not complain about maintenance issues.

“I have two high school age kids. I’m disabled. It’s not like we can just pick up and leave,” she said.

Maples-Phelps explained that she thought the point of code enforcement is to make the landlord do what he is supposed to do, but she saw that isn’t the current reality, based on her observations of her neighbors’ experiences.

Esparza labeled what the tenants are experiencing as “retaliation” and “a great deal of intimidation,” adding that he knows others in his district might be experiencing something similar.

He urged residents in similar situation to call their city council representatives.

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