A group of protesters unhappy with the city’s plans gather outside Fresno City Hall before the start of a special meeting of the city council for presentations ofthe City of Fresno’s housing plans in answer to the housing crises Wednesday, April 27, 2022 in Fresno. Credit: Eric Paul Zamora / The Fresno Bee

What's at stake?

The $259 million+ plan to solve Fresno's housing crisis got it's first public hearing, but it lacks any action on rent stabilization, a request that many tenants have made.

This story was originally published at fresnobee.com on April 28, 2022.

The Fresno City Council listened to researchers, staff and community members at a special hearing Wednesday about the “Here to Stay” and the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” – two reports that aim to solve Fresno’s housing crisis – but took no action on the more than 100 total policies recommended by the two reports.

While both reports clearly outlined a city in crisis, the “Here to Stay” report focuses on addressing displacement through making existing housing more affordable, while the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” encourages building more housing to meet demand as the solution.

The “Here to Stay” report was compiled by the Thrivance Group for Transformative Climate Communities and the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” by the mayor’s office.

An hour and a half of public comments followed the two reports with a split, with landlords and developers strongly opposing rent control and pushing for building more, while housing advocates pushed the “Here to Stay ‘‘ report policies, which include rent stabilization along with more community engagement.

District 3 Councilmember Miguel Arias said following public comment that the two groups were “talking past each other” and that neither building nor implementing renter protections would be enough by itself to solve the city’s housing crisis.

District 4 Councilmember Tyler Maxwell said, “This is not either or” one of the two reports, adding that there is a “false dichotomy” between the two plans in public discourse. Roughly 15 policies in the two housing plans overlap.

Council members commended Mayor Jerry Dyer and his administration for the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” report which clearly outlined how Fresno’s past decisions to allow single-family sprawl led to a mismatch in supply and demand for affordable housing. The mayor’s report explained that Fresno has roughly 28,000 more single family homes than it needs, while also experiencing a shortage of multi-bedroom housing for households that cannot afford more than $1,000 a month.

Community says it was left out of Mayor’s strategy

One criticism of the mayor’s housing strategy was that it lacked community input. While the “Here to Stay” report involved months of outreach, public comments and workshops, the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” was released to the public less than a week prior to the housing hearing.

Around a dozen housing advocates with Faith in the Valley boycotted the special hearing outside of City Hall due to the lack of community involvement in the mayor’s plan.

Kiel Lopez-Schmidt, executive director of the South Tower Trust, said he is listed as a community contributor to the report, but that he only participated in one meeting, along with a handful of other community leaders. He said bringing in more community members would allow the council to “really wrestle” with ideas like rent control.

“If we’re not doing things that make our existing developers uncomfortable with this plan, we’re not changing anything,” Lopez-Schmidt said. “We’re continuing to concentrate resources with people that already have resources.”

Eric Payne, the executive director of Central Valley Urban Institute, asked the council to have a second “congressional-style hearing” with more public engagement.

Saying the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” “misses the mark,” Payne added, “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we have to get it right collaboratively.”

Nikolas Wildstar, who is running against Arias in the upcoming election, said the mayor’s plan “excludes the people of the public. It’s been a bit arrogant to say, ‘We’ve heard from (the public) for the past 10 years. We’ve heard enough, and we’re going to move forward with these plans.’”

Several members of the City Council, however, defended Dyer’s plan, saying that the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” considered public comments and reports such as the “Here to Stay” report during its planning. The mayor’s administration also held meetings with some community organizations and interest groups.

“It would be unfair to say (Dyer) did not listen and incorporate those things in the housing plan,” Maxwell said.

Rent control was hot-button issue

In the city of Fresno, 60% of Fresnans are cost-burdened by housing, according to the “One Fresno Housing Strategy,” a point that Arias repeated several times throughout the hearing.

“Every stakeholder I have spoken to that doesn’t want to intervene is not spending more than 50% of their income on rent,” Arias said. “We are in a housing crisis, and the free market has made it worse, not better.”

During public comments, most landlords and developers present spoke out against rent control specifically, while affordable housing advocates spoke in favor of the “Here to Stay” policy priorities, which include rent stabilization.

Rent stabilization, such as rent control with just cause eviction protections, was one of the top 10 policy recommendations from the “Here to Stay” report. Meanwhile, the “One Fresno Housing Strategy” proposes a voluntary rent stabilization program which would give a grant to the landlord to rehabilitate the property in exchange for an affordability covenant.

Don Scordino, who has been a local landlord for more than four decades, suggested that people who want rent control should buy a home.

“I encourage (tenants) to buy homes because that’s how they can get rent control, by getting a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, so that option is out there,” Scordino said.

The “One Fresno Housing Strategy” makes it clear that many Fresnans cannot afford to buy a home, and many homeowners in Fresno are also cost-burdened.

Developers also said that the state’s rent control, which caps annual rent increases at 10%, is already impeding building. Others said that rent control was to blame for a diminishing rental market.

Affordable housing advocates, including Marisa Moraza with Power California, said people cannot afford to wait for future housing options; they need protections like rent control implemented quickly.

“This is the only policy that can provide immediate relief to renters facing unaffordable rent prices,” Moraza said. “We keep making national headlines. That’s not OK.”

Renters and organizers have for months held rallies and flooded public comment sessions asking for action on rent control.

Despite this being the focus of public comment for many on both sides of the issue, the City Council did not discuss the policy at length.

Councilmember Luis Chavez said it is difficult to “gauge where exactly our constituency is” on policies like rent control or inclusionary zoning. He said that in 2020, about 70% of Fresno County voters opposed Proposition 21, a rent control measure.

“Now, that was 16 months ago, and obviously situations have changed. We’ve had some inflation, and obviously rent prices are going up,” Chavez said. “And so, as we go through these conversations, I just want us to be very thoughtful about what we do policy wise and the unintended consequences.”

Councilmembers want emphasis on affordable homeownership

Following the workshops and comments, most councilmembers said they hope to implement policies that would allow for more affordable homeownership options.

“How do we make more viable the opportunity for residents specifically to become homeowners in the city of Fresno?” Maxwell said. “What I’m not interested in doing is making Bay Area residents or LA residents twice- or thrice-over homeowners.”

Councilmember Esmeralda Soria said she has been advocating for bringing more affordable housing options to residents for years, and not “just public housing. I’m talking about homeownership, because that’s what I wanted it to be from day one.”

Some councilmembers, like District 6 Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, said the best thing the city can do is cut red tape.

“We need to remove all the regulations that stop development or slow it. It isn’t about government spending and creating new programs,” Bredefeld said. “It’s having good common sense, pro-business, pro-development policies, and frankly, government getting out of the way of the private sector.”

Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy agreed with Bredefeld, adding, “government can’t be the solution.”

“The intention of (some) recommendations are to help build capacity of those who will also be part of the solution,” Grundy said, referring to developers. He added that the $260 million is a “drop in the bucket” of what is needed to move the needle on affordable housing needs.

Soria said the hearing was only the beginning of the conversation.

“It’s reached much more than a crisis today,” she said. “It’s really sad to see how long it has taken to have this conversation because I feel this is only the beginning of the conversation.”

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.

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