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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 officers find ‘substantial substandard housing conditions’ at Manchester Arms
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Fresno City Code Enforcement officers found dozens of health and safety violations — including fire risks from missing smoke detectors and hazardous electrical issues — while inspecting every unit at Manchester Arms, a Fresno apartment complex investigated by The Fresno Bee.
As of April 21, code enforcement officers inspected building exteriors and all 41 units at the complex either virtually or in person. Not all residents consented to the inspections; officers gained entry to 13 units with judge-issued warrants.
“We directed Code Enforcement to inspect every unit to ensure we understood the full scope of the problem at the complex,” said Nelson Esparza, District 7 City Council representative. Without a warrant, he said, officers “wouldn’t be able to access those units where folks were refusing inspection or where they were unable to make contact with a tenant after several attempts.”
Manchester Arms, owned by Joel Gutierrez of Gutierrez and Son, was added to the city’s Anti-Slum Task Force (ASET) list after several residents told The Bee that they experienced frequent water shutoffs, broken appliances, untimely fixes and erratic rent increases.
Gutierrez has not responded to requests for comment since mid-March. He did, however, discuss The Bee’s reporting in emails to code enforcement officers and said the “lies in the Fresno Bee can be proven wrong.” He did not say which of the numerous allegations were untrue.
In a recent visit to the complex, a code enforcement officer noted that a “(T)enant stated that they were told to not allow entry to the city inspectors, public records show.” The inspector didn’t indicate who told the tenant to refuse an inspection; however, several tenants told The Bee earlier they were fearful of retaliation from Gutierrez.
Esparza said during the first wide-scale inspection that he was hopeful that by inspecting all units, the landlord could not single out any tenants in particular.
How long it will take for the city to hold Gutierrez accountable to fixing all the health and safety risks in the buildings remains unclear. Some residents have been waiting for months.
The city first descended upon the complex on March 30 with a team of 50 or so code officers. Within hours, 10 units had been inspected, according Assistant Deputy City Attorney Christina Roberson.
“Now that every unit has been inspected, the owner will be notified of violations, and ASET will diligently follow up on repairs,” Esparza told The Bee in a text message. “Our District 7 office is receiving updates and continuing to monitor the situation at the city works to bring these housing units up to code.”
What code enforcement found
The Bee obtained code enforcement documents through a public records request for summaries of inspections of 19 units between March 30 and April 15; email communication with Gutierrez, and email communication regarding the warrant to inspect the property. The Bee is awaiting results of the remaining inspection reports and violation summaries.
Of the 19 units inspected in late March and early April, code enforcement found:
Smoke detectors were missing, defective or improperly installed in 16 units.
Carbon monoxide detectors were missing, defective or in the wrong place in seven units.
Evidence of roach infestations were found in at least seven apartment units.
Mold or mildew was found in six units.
Five units had missing or damaged caulking in the bathroom.
Eight units had missing or damaged screens in one or more windows.
Two units had unfinished and unsanitary walls and ceilings.
Other issues included inoperable exhaust fans in bathrooms, a broken HVAC system, a broken electrical range and damaged cabinets and electrical issues.
Code enforcement also noted that amenities in a handful of units were improperly installed, including a sink, a flex line pipe, an electrical outlet box, a window and some doors. Plumbing water supply lines to bathrooms in two units and the shower surrounds in multiple units were also installed without required permits and inspections, according to code enforcement.
“[Manchester Arms has] evidence of substantial substandard housing conditions, including broken windows, significant calls for police service, evidence of the presence of mold, damaged AC unit vent screen, overgrown vegetation, presence of junk and rubbish, rain gutter spouts in a state of disrepair, and substandard electrical issues,” the ASET weekly report stated on April 23.
Four of the 41 units were inspected under the city’s baseline inspection program, which requires that random units be inspected to determine the frequency at which an apartment complex is reviewed. All four selected units failed inspections. This is the second time Manchester Arms has failed the baseline inspection program.
Property owner alleges ‘false accusations,’ ‘lies of a few bad apples’
Six days after code enforcement swarmed the building, Gutierrez sent an email to code enforcement stating that what the city heard from tenants and read in The Bee was false.
Photos, observations, code enforcement reports and tenant testimonies show otherwise.
“If you begin to start citing us on false accusations, we will be left without a choice to just throw our hands up as a minority business owner and just say we tried to help. …,” the email stated. “I appreciate your time and concerns with this serious matter and pray you’re not blinded by the lies of a few bad apples in the community.”
Code enforcement issued Gutierrez and Sons a $246 administrative and inspection fee on the day they swarmed the complex. No additional fees were issued as of April 20, documents show.
An April 1 notice to Gutierrez states that if violations are found, he will be sent information on what needs to be fixed and by when. In the past, Gutierrez had not met code enforcement deadlines and had faced no fines.
A copy of the notice was sent to Barings Multifamily Capital, a commercial real estate lender and servicer, and to Higier Allen and Lautin, a law firm that represents property owners. Both companies are based out of Texas.
On April 1, Gutierrez sent code enforcement an email stating he had “made several attempts in reaching out to several individuals from your department and have been unsuccessful in communicating with or receiving a single return call. We’re just trying to get clarification on what’s needed to be done to comply and have had no answers.”
He also blamed neglected repairs on maintenance workers who did not want to work due to COVID-19 relief funding.
That same day, Gutierrez emailed another code enforcement officer claiming that his family may sell the building because they do not have enough funding to pay the fines. The subject line of the email read, “Of[f] the record.” Emails to city employees are generally public record.
“It looks like we might end up selling our property to the Indian owners around the corner that touch our community. They’re the only ones who have the cash and interest in purchasing without listing the property. From what (they) told me, and I relayed (information) to all my family, fines are going to break us. Thank you for the help, and we did try to improve the community,” Gutierrez wrote to a city code enforcement officer, which makes it public record.
The apartment has not been listed for sale as of April 24.
Documents show code enforcement did not respond to Gutierrez’s emails and claims directly. The city notified Gutierrez 24 hours prior to serving the April 21 warrant to inspect the remaining 13 uninspected units.
Gutierrez did not return The Bee’s emailed and texted requests for comment. Voicemails could not be left for his number.
Tenants say not much has changed
Tenant Patricia Coffey, who lives with and takes care of former apartment manager Laura Denies, said she has seen maintenance people and code enforcement at the property frequently since the investigation.
“They’re here every day,” she said. “I know that they’re working on empty apartments, but as far as if things are getting fixed, I’m not aware of it.”
Tenant Nikki Maples-Phelps said while she has seen people out and about, she said little has changed.
“Right by the mailboxes, the top of the ceiling was coming down pretty much and it looked like they fixed that, but other than that, I haven’t seen anything,” Maples-Phelps said.
Maples-Phelps said she also received a 24-hour notice of entry for repairs from the current Manchester Arms property manager on April 6, yet no one ever came.
Maples-Phelps said, “I waited around all day and they never showed up and I haven’t heard anything.”