Three Fresno City Council members on Tuesday proposed a set of changes to the city’s code enforcement policy as well as a new eviction protection for renters.

Nelson Esparza, council vice president and District 7 representative and Miguel Arias, District 3 representative, introduced amendments to the 2017 Rental Housing Improvement Act which enacted proactive code enforcement inspections.

Esparza and Tyler Maxwell, District 4 representative, also introduced the Eviction Protections Program (EPP), a new proposal that bridges the gap between the Right to Counsel Program by the RTC Coalition and the Rental Mediation Program by Council President Luis Chavez. All three proposals are geared toward providing eviction protections ahead of a potential “eviction tsunami.”

“Housing security and stability, along with habitability, are growing concerns within our city,” Esparza said during a news conference. “These are not issues that are occurring in a vacuum.”

The new rules are a result of a Fresno Bee investigation into the out-of-compliance Manchester Arms apartment complex in Esparza’s central Fresno district as well as the approaching end of the California rent moratorium on June 30.

The new set of renter protections are meant to quell slumlords and prevent homelessness as the county continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and its lasting effects on the economy and the health of the city.

“The rapidly increasing homeless population here in Fresno, as well as across the state, is a part, a function of the fragility of our housing market,” Esparza said.

A new eviction protection proposal is on the table

Maxwell and Esparza’s EPP proposal adopts aspects of the RTC proposal and the Rental Mediation Program.

The need for an eviction program was made more urgent by the recent federal court ruling that the national rent moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control is unlawful. While the California rent moratorium will remain in place until June 30, Maxwell said the city needs to plan for the uncertainty ahead because “the future of the moratorium is all but certain.”

The EPP lays the framework for a program that includes the following:

  • Free legal counsel to Fresno tenants facing unlawful evictions.

  • Free mediation services between tenants and landlords.

  • Widespread community outreach to inform tenants and landlords of the programs available.

Fresno City housing advocates, including organizers of Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel, have been pushing for the adoption of the Right to Counsel program, including community outreach, legal advice or mediation and — most importantly — free legal aid to tenants facing eviction, if they fall below a certain income level.

A key difference between the Right to Counsel and the EPP proposals is that the EPP would only provide legal defense for tenants facing potentially unlawful evictions.

“(Money) is going to be the limiting factor on this program,” Maxwell said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be $1,000; I don’t know if it’s going to be $1 million.”

Fresno City Councilmembers Tyler Maxwell, right, Nelson Esparza,left, and Miguel Arias, join at a Tuesday City Hall press conference to talk about introducing a resolution to create Fresno’s Eviction Protection Program (EPP) which will allow the city attorney to seek outside legal counsel to represent tenants who are facing potential unlawful evictions.  JOHN WALKER

On the criticism that the program is limited only to tenants facing potentially unlawful evictions, Maxwell said, “We don’t want perfection to get in the way of progress.”

The EPP also builds upon Chavez’s proposal centering around neutral mediation for tenants facing potentially unlawful evictions.

The city council president’s proposal was heavily criticized by housing advocates who said a similar program already exists and is not offering enough to protect tenants.

Both Maxwell and Esparza said they have yet to identify a funding source for the program which Esparza estimates will cost a minimum $500,000, between the $150,000 to $200,00 RMP proposal and the $1 million RTC proposal.

The EPP proposal will be brought before the rest of the City Council on Thursday.

How could code enforcement policy change?

Despite having a proactive rental inspection program, city inspectors failed to identify substandard housing conditions, such as the ones found at Manchester Arms through The Bee’s investigation.

“Is (the Rental Housing Improvement Act) serving its intended purpose?” Esparza asked. “I think the situation that occurred at Manchester Arms and the fact that properties like that continue to exist has answered that question for all of us very loud and clear.”

Esparza and Arias said their aim is to amend the existing 2017 Rental Housing Improvement Act which allowed for the city to proactively inspect rental properties, rather than just respond to complaints. The program was widely hailed as progressive when it passed, but Esparza said amendments are needed to “tighten some of the bolts” of the program.

The amendments to the program include:

  • Allowing Fresno City Code Enforcement inspectors to inspect more units at properties where initial baseline inspections reveal many violations and requiring inspectors to refer these properties to the Anti-Slum Enforcement Task Force.

  • Cutting from 90 days to 45 days, the extension time granted to landlords who need to resolve issues.

  • Including long-term stay hotels and motels among residents to be inspected by Code Enforcement.

  • Requiring that all information, including property owner information, be included in the rental registry.

  • Allowing reevaluation of the program every five years.

  • Issuing penalties to landlords who fail to make corrections in a timely manner. (In other words, landlords could be subject to penalties after 45 days, whereas under current language, landlords face no fines for not correcting issues identified in baseline inspections.)

  • Increasing fines and issuing penalties to landlords who fail to register properties.

  • Issuing penalties to owners that have neglected to update the registry after they buy or sell property.

  • Setting inspection costs in the Master Fee Schedule.

  • Expanding exceptions for newly constructed buildings and clarifying exemptions for the Housing Authority, which conducts its own inspections of rental units.

  • Removing the requirement for inspectors to schedule re-inspections and having property owners use a self-certification program.

Arias said the amendments, which will be discussed at Thursday’s City Council meeting, are an attempt to make “far more significant progress” with the Rental Housing Improvement Act than has been made in the last three years.

“Just a few years ago the baseline policy of inspecting rental properties was the biggest, most dramatic change in our city,” Arias said, citing a lot of pushback to the initial program. “We’re not seeing that today; we’re seeing a recognition that landlords should be held accountable for maintaining that safe and healthy housing condition.”

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