Tenants at the Manchester Arms apartment complex in Fresno are not the only renters who have suffered unhealthy and unsafe living conditions, despite the Fresno city attorney’s claim that it was a rather isolated incident brought on by the pandemic.

“The Manchester situation, I think, is somewhat unique; there were a few units there that were substandard,” City Attorney Doug Sloan said, during the April 8 City Council meeting, about the apartment complex that was soon found to have more than 250 health and safety violations.

“Part of that was a result of not doing interior inspections in the last year.”

But living in substandard conditions is not an isolated situation in Fresno’s more than 80,000 rental units.

Renters say they are living with mold, plumbing issues and other safety hazards. Most tenants are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their housing.

A JD Homes renter, like several renters who spoke with The Bee, said they have had ongoing rodent and cockroach infestations. This renter said she tries to address the issue herself out of fear of retaliation. JD Homes renter

Mold, rodent infestations, plumbing issues, leaking roofs

More than 30 people in both rental homes and apartment complexes told The Fresno Bee, via an online survey and face-to-face interviews, that their rental housing is hazardous.

The Bee has yet to confirm the details of every survey respondent’s situation, but several people described their living conditions as “horrible,” “terrible” and “unsafe.” One woman said Fresno was “one of the worst cities I’ve rented property in.” Another said they are “living in misery.”

Habitability concerns included pests, broken windows and doors, mold, plumbing issues, broken heaters, missing smoke or carbon monoxide detectors and damaged carpets — all of which violate city housing code standards.

Nicole Greene, a resident at La Casa Manor, located at 1223 N Sylmar Ave., just south of the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, said, “From day one, it’s been one thing after the other.” The property is managed by Regency Property Management, and according to the County Assessor’s office, Schaffer Properties LLC bought the property in February 2020.

Greene pays $925 a month for a unit she says she was told had been remodeled. Yet, when she moved in around April 2020, there were holes in the walls and unsealed baseboards, through which she says pests crawl in. She says the place was infested with cockroaches and rodents.

“You can hear them in the walls,” Greene said.

A representative of Regency Property Management said, however, that they have a monthly pest control service and typically respond within a day or two to complaints.

Another renter at the same apartment complex said she went without hot water for several days. On May 28, Jenny Copeland heard a bang and saw flames shooting out of the water heater in her unit. She said she called Regency Property Management more than five times between Friday and Monday with no reply. She called PG&E on Tuesday morning when she smelled gas. PG&E shut off the gas line, but did not resolve the hot water, Copeland said.

“There are three adults and three kids living here,” Copeland said. “It’s hard to clean things without hot water.”

She said she took her children to a neighbor’s apartment to shower, and the management company was set to send a repair person to her apartment on Wednesday.

Greg Null pulls up a rug covering part of the the carpet in the apartment he resides in with his wife Jessica at La Casa Manor in Fresno on Tuesday, June 2, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Copeland’s sister and her husband, Jessica and Gregory Null, live a few doors away in an apartment that was overtaken by mold following a bathroom flood a year and a half ago. The Nulls said they are at risk of their children being removed from their home if the black mold growing through their carpet isn’t addressed.

Gregory Null said Fresno County Child Protective Services is “in our lives, and they won’t close the case until the carpet gets fixed.”

According to the Nulls, a pipe burst in their bathroom in December 2019, spewing water for more than 45 minutes before they could shut it off. While the plumbing issue was resolved within a few days and Regency Management provided large fans for the carpet, the soaked carpet was never replaced, leading to black mold. Now the carpet of most of their living room, hallway and part of one bedroom is blackened with mold — so much so it’s impossible to tell that the carpet was ever light brown. Mold is also growing on their ceiling fan and walls.

“I’ve told (Regency) at least four or five times, and it still isn’t fixed,” Jessica Null said. She told The Bee her landlord sent carpet cleaners to shampoo the carpet, but that did not solve the caked-on mold.

Gregory Null said the couple stopped payment of rent about six months ago because the management company has not replaced the carpet.

Black mold has grown on the Null family’s ceiling and ceiling fan. Cassandra Garibay

The Nulls said their apartment failed a Fresno Housing Authority inspection on May 26 because of the conditions of their carpet, an issue that must be resolved within 20 days or the couple must find new housing to remain eligible for Section 8 assistance.

The property management company said carpet cleaners were sent to a unit at the property but were unable to address the issue due to damages they said the tenants have caused. Regency would not confirm the names of the tenants or the unit number the carpet cleaners visited.

Regardless of who causes the damage, landlords must provide habitable living situations, including the absence of visible mold, according to Fresno City Code Enforcement.

Shalina Williams, another mother at La Casa Manor, said rodents and cockroaches scurry through her apartment, no matter how clean she keeps it.

Shalina Williams has found several rodents in her kitchen at La Casa Manor and fears for her children’s safety. Shalina Williams

Williams said she once found one of her young sons attempting to play with a rodent in the kitchen.

Yet, her biggest concern is the safety of the neighborhood. She and her three young sons had just left the courtyard when a recent shooting took place, she said.

Greene, Jessica Null and Copeland also each mentioned safety concerns for their children due to the recent shooting and broken gates.

Greene said she began looking for a new apartment after three stray bullets penetrated the walls and landed in her living room.

“I just want to be comfortable,” Greene said. “I want my son to be comfortable.”

The front entrance to La Casa Manor apartments is shown at its location in Fresno on Tuesday, June 2, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Regency said they have fixed the broken gates at the property several times and blame tenants for repeatedly breaking the gates.

The Bee has filed a public records request and is awaiting documents from Code Enforcement regarding activity at La Casa Manor since January 2019.

Mice infestation blamed on nearby canal

Nola Saunders lived at the Torrey Ridge Apartment complex, located at 222 S. Clovis Ave., where she was plagued with rodent infestation for 10 years. She moved out due to a growing homeless encampment behind her apartment.

Nola Saunders, a former Torrey Ridge tenant, said plumbing issues caused water damage in her apartment ceiling. Nola Saunders

Saunders lived in two different units in her 10 years at Torrey Ridge. She was moved out of the first apartment unit due to ongoing plumbing issues, but at the unit she moved into, she still experienced recurring plumbing issues and a near-constant mice infestation.

She said her landlord would send the maintenance person to trap the mice or provide her with traps whenever she called, but the infestations persisted.

Then her landlord told her there was nothing they could do to prevent the rodents because she lived in a unit that was close to the canal, behind the complex.

Torrey Ridge Apartments’ management did not respond to an emailed request for comments.

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The roof of one renter’s home has leaks and is deteriorating, yet she fears reporting the issue will cost her a place to live. JD Homes renter

‘We don’t dare call’ JD Homes

A woman who asked to remain unnamed for fear of losing her housing said she has lived in houses owned by JD Homes her entire life. She said the conditions of her southeast Fresno rental home are dangerous. The roof is leaking in several places; the fence between her and her neighbor’s yard fell over; trash overflows in bins in the alleyway behind her home, and roaches and rodents are a constant menace.

“I’ve learned that if something breaks or needs to be fixed, you do it yourself,” she stated in a survey response. “We don’t dare call the company.”

The woman said when she moved into the home in August 2012, rent was $850. It has since gone up to $1,300, which she said she suspects is a result of her requests for issues to be resolved.

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Trash accumulates directly behind the fence of one renter’s apartment;; the renter has sought help from Fresno city Code Enforcement. JD Homes renter

The woman said she has called code enforcement about the trash concerns, but with problems within the home, she has never called because, “I already know they aren’t going to do anything.”

JD Homes is a large property management company in the central San Joaquin Valley that was sued in 2016 because of habitability issues. JD Homes did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

‘Suck it up and figure it out’

Nishea Balajadia has rented a home in the Tower District, about a block north of Olive Avenue, since October 2018. She said the sink in her only bathroom did not work for months, forcing her to use her tub as a sink. She also worries of rodent infestations and black mold.

“Everything is broken in my house,” Balajadia said. “(My landlords) never respond or they basically tell me to suck it up and figure it out.”

In an email to Balajadia’s landlords which she also shared with The Bee, the single mother detailed the dates of her complaints that largely went unaddressed.

In the email, Balajadia stated that she alerted the landlords to rodents in October, November and December of 2018 but was told the house is old and to set traps herself.

Nishea Balajadia used her tub as a sink when the sink in her only bathroom didn’t work for months. Nishea Balajadia

Balajadia’s email also noted that the sink in her only bathroom didn’t work, and the garbage disposal leaked, though a timeline was not clear.

In February 2021, the bathroom flooded and she was told by the plumber he could only make a temporary repair; she said she waited for another two months before any follow-up.

When asked why plumbing issues and rodent infestations were not addressed, Balajadia’s landlord, Kevin Bushaw, said, “Your information is incorrect.”

Bushaw also denied receiving notice about any plumbing issues prior to issuing a notice to quit in May.

“Nevertheless the issues were corrected immediately,” Bushaw wrote in a statement to The Bee. “Further, when the house was inspected in March 2021, the tenant did not mention any issues.”

Bushaw insisted there was no rodent infestation and that the dirt and mildew around the windows is due to a lack of cleaning.

“This is simply retaliation by the tenant once she received the notice with the COVID language,” he wrote in reference to a 15-day notice to pay or quit the lease, along with a declaration of COVID-19 financial distress form which Balajadia said she previously asked for.

Balajadia said she has been looking for a new rental house for the last two years, but that her options are severely limited.

“There are so few places available, but when there is, it’s so freaking impacted by people wanting to move that you have to make triple or quadruple amounts and also have like an 800 credit score in order to be looked at,” Balajadia said. “And I’m a single mom with low income, so that’s not something that’s feasible for me.”

She sent in a 30-day notice on June 2 after receiving a 15-day notice to quit the lease in May from her landlords.

Balajadia lost her employment during COVID-19 and has not paid any rent since December 2020. The 15-day notice she received on May 19 stated that she must pay all past due rent or quit the lease.

Balajadia said she applied for the Fresno Emergency Rental Assistance Program on April 1 and informed her landlord, yet they said they would still be out 20% of the rent owed them. She canceled her initial application and reapplied on May 16 to receive the funding herself rather than the funding going directly to her landlord.

She said she never reported any issues to Code Enforcement because she was fearful that her landlord would find reason to evict her.

Fear of retaliation and fix it yourself

Like many tenants at Manchester Arms, renters told The Bee they often repaired issues themselves or didn’t report concerns because they feared retaliation from their landlords.

Thirteen of the 30 people who filled out the online survey said they haven’t reported one or more issues out of fear of retaliation from their landlord. More said they continue to live with the problems or fix it themselves.

For the eight who said they did report issues to their landlord or code enforcement, only five said their issue was resolved. One person said in the survey, “They have done nothing but raise my rent.”

Mold appears around the tub at Greg and Jessica Null’s apartment at La Casa Manor in Fresno on Tuesday, June 2, 2021. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

How and why do these rental properties go unnoticed?

Though the Rental Housing Improvement Act (RHIA), first implemented in January 2018, was meant to remove the burden of reporting habitability concerns from renters, severe conditions continue.

As of May 18, Code Enforcement has conducted 7,704 in-unit proactive inspections and exterior inspections at 3,430 rental properties. In total, there are 86,926 registered units at 30,757 properties in the city of Fresno.

The Fresno Bee has not received clear responses from Code Enforcement on how many rental properties have undergone a baseline inspection.

The current policy, as written, doesn’t dictate a timeline for how long city officials have to conduct a compliance re-inspection at a property that fails an initial inspection. As was the case at Manchester Arms, it was more than a year before the property was re-inspected or placed into the policy’s tier system, which determines how frequently a property undergoes another baseline inspection.

City Council Vice President Nelson Esparza, who represents District 7, and District 3 Councilmember Miguel Arias proposed changes to the current RHIA to provide more resources at properties that have safety concerns and cuts the time landlords have to fix issues in half. The changes however do not address a timeline for compliance reinspections.

Meanwhile, the anti-slum enforcement team (ASET) is currently working to address 17 properties, with more properties pending, according to the May 28 ASET Weekly Status Report. ASET’s work at more than 75 properties has been completed and about 10 more properties are pending, the report says.

Yet, the program only identifies and works to correct the worst of the worst code violators, leaving many rental units with habitability problems flying under their radar. This is in part because there are little protections in place for tenants who speak up.

“Knowing that at any moment, any little thing we try to ask for them to make right, can and will often trigger threats of the nightmare-inducing three-day eviction notice or the equally feared notice of raised rent,” the woman who rents from JD Homes stated in a message to The Bee.

“I refuse to believe that this is the kind of place where I’m supposed to belong, where my son is supposed to belong.”

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