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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 officials swarmed Manchester Arms apartment complex Tuesday to document potential code violations and give tenants resources.

Several tenants said they were glad to see the city’s attention, but still fear their landlord’s reaction.

“A lot of people are scared,” said Rena Sahagun, who raises her four sons in a three-bedroom apartment there. She told her neighbors on Tuesday morning, “This is your chance to speak out.”

Dozens of code enforcement officers descended on the complex on Effie Street, a block east of Blackstone Avenue, around 9:30 a.m. — a day after The Bee published online an investigation of the city’s failure to protect renters from unhealthy conditions.

City of Fresno Code Enforcement officers take notes and make the rounds during an inspection of the Manchester Arms complex, March 31, 2021. JOHN WALKER

Within hours, 10 households had allowed officers to photograph and inspect their apartments and 13 more scheduled inspections for Wednesday morning or agreed to schedule a future inspections, according to Assistant Deputy City Attorney Christina Roberson. Eight households declined to allow inspectors inside, which is within their legal right.

According to Roberson, code enforcement has been in contact with property owner Joel Gutierrez about open cases and the inspections conducted Tuesday.

“I thought it was great,” resident Alyssa Mendoza said of the city’s response. She said there is mold on her bathroom ceiling and the air conditioning and heater unit breaks regularly.

With an ill child at home, Mendoza often has to stay elsewhere when the weather is too hot or too cold. Even with the unaddressed maintenance issues, she was told her rent would increase in May from $775 to $820 for the two-bedroom unit.

She shared her experience with District 7 Councilmember, Nelson Esparza, who was present during the inspections to “tell the residents I’m here for them.” The Fresno City Council oversees the code enforcement division.

Esparza said the city has “a micro lens on this property,” as a result of The Bee’s reporting, which he called “very alarming.”

Code enforcement complaints

Standing together under an overhang toward the front of the building, Mendoza told her elected city councilmember that she had never called code enforcement before, but that she had submitted a claim online “and never heard back.”

Even when residents do call, they haven’t always gotten great results.

“A lot of us have been calling code enforcement a lot and we haven’t gotten anywhere,” Sahagun said.

She scheduled an inspection for Wednesday morning to show code enforcement problems in her apartment, including mold under the cabinets and mildew in the bathroom.

Sahagun said speaking with code enforcement Tuesday was a positive experience and that the resources provided by city staff were helpful.

Code enforcement officer David Ceballos, with the City of Fresno, conducts an inspection in the apartment of Mai Vue at the Manchester Arms complex, March 31, 2021. JOHN WALKER

While the inspections were performed without tenants having to call to complain, several tenants told The Bee they still fear intimidation by Joel Gutierrez of Gutierrez & Son LP. The landlord has security cameras throughout the complex to watch activities.

The Bee reached out to Gutierrez for comment and will update this story if he responds.

“My biggest worry is retaliation,” said Nicki Maples-Phelps, who lives in the complex with her partner and teenage children. “If we say anything, he has so much power.”

“The city should do something” about landlord retaliation, she told Esparza. “I don’t really know how. But no one wants to complain because of what he does.”

When asked what code enforcement offers could say to lessen tenant’s fear of retaliation from the landlord, city attorney Roberson said officers told tenants the inspections were proactive.

“Right now our main goal is to figure out what’s going on in as many units as possible,“ Roberson said.

“My hope is that it’s difficult for a landlord to single out any tenants,” Esparza added.

Referred to legal help

Roberson wrote in a follow-up email that tenants who are concerned about retaliation can contact Central California Legal Services. CCLS offers free legal services to low-income residents. The team has six attorneys and more than 300 open eviction cases.

Laura Denies, a resident and former on-site property manager of Manchester Arms, said what matters most is what happens next.

She complained to Kevin Watkins, manager for the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization division, about the condition of her former apartment.

Denies moved into a unit next door to live with her sister, who is her caregiver, and says her old unit has mold in the walls that made her son sick.

Officials told her the problems were fixed. “I’m saying, ‘No, it’s not,’” Denies told The Bee. “They didn’t fix the mold. The mold is in the walls. Just painting over it is not fixing it.”

A common complaint from tenants is that the landlord only pays maintenance to fix things superficially and that code enforcement approves those fixes as compliant, whether the problem is the hot water heater in the back building, mold in the floors and walls or plumbing.

Gutierrez will receive a notice regarding violations found during the internal and external inspections conducted this week, according to Roberson.

“They’re here,” Denies said of the city officials. “Let’s see if work gets done.”

Manchester Arms resident Laura Denies talks with city code enforcement officers during an inspection of the complex, March 31, 2021. JOHN WALKER Fresno Bee file

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