Fresno has been called a “slumlord industry” and “the land of deferred maintenance.”

The Fresno Bee conducted an extensive investigation of seven apartment buildings in Fresno, two of which are public housing.

They found that housing codes are largely unregulated by the code enforcement office, resulting in uninhabitable conditions. Unlike in other large California cities, officials are not required to inspect the inside of units and therefore rarely do.

Common poor, slum-like conditions include:

  • roach and rodent infestations;
  • mold;
  • broken heaters;
  • unsafe or unusable appliances;
  • leaks;
  • rotten ceilings;
  • toilets that don’t work;
  • holes in the walls;
  • trash in common areas; and
  • damaged doors.

Why is housing blight a problem in Fresno and who is to blame?

It depends who you ask. Landlords typically blame the tenants for not taking care of the property, or they blame their property managers. Tenants blame the landlord for the slum environment and indirectly blame the city, as well. Both tenant and landlord know the city rarely interferes, thus tenants don’t often report negligent landlords and landlords of low-income housing tend to let their properties go unmaintained for want of a consequence.

Nearly one-in-three Fresno residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census. The low wages and high unemployment of the agricultural industry are much to blame. As a result, code enforcement officials have a large number of low-income housing units to inspect, for which they are underfunded.

Code enforcement officials will routinely visit the same property several times for the same code violation before fining the landlord. Then, the fine is so low (in the hundreds of dollars) it’s seen as a “slap on the wrist” rather than an actual deterrence.

Of the few landlords who are fined, many simply don’t pay. Fresno’s solution was to attach a lien to the property. However, these are easily kicked down the road and the city rarely collects. Other cities more successful at collecting fines attach them to the property tax bill, which carries more dire consequences for the landlord if unpaid.

The financial impact

Fresno real estate professionals might be scratching their heads, wondering how this impacts them. After all, other than property managers, real estate agents don’t deal with these types of rental properties. But beyond the social issue of families living in squalor — something we’ve come to expect from third-world countries but not from our backyard — there is a financial cost as well.

Housing experts have weighed in, and poorly maintained apartment buildings decrease property values not for just nearby buildings, but for the entire city. The median home value in Fresno is just $175,000 and the homeownership rate is a low 48% compared to the state’s 53.4% homeownership rate in Q2 2016, according to the U.S. Census.

Further, the financial burden falls squarely on the taxpayers. The Fresno Bee estimates the city will spend $5 million in 2016 responding to code enforcement nuisance calls and they will only be able to collect $1.7 million in fines. Other costs add up, including the cost to respond to fires in vacant and slum apartments.

Landlords and property managers: refresh your knowledge of the safety requirements needed to maintain a habitable residential rental in California here.

If you want to report a housing issue in the City of Fresno or Fresno County, see the Fresno Bee for information on who to contact.