By Colby Tibbet
FRESNO– Over six months into their #OneHealthyFresno campaign, Faith in Community (FIC), hopes that the City of Fresno will take action against the urban blight that plagues neighborhoods across Fresno, but especially in southeast and southwest Fresno.
“[The campaign is] part of this broader emphasis that South Fresno neighborhoods[have been left behind and neglected for decades and aren’t really prioritized by the city,” said Andy Levine, Executive Director of Faith in Community.
Blighted homes are often vacant, with desolate lawns, stained driveways, and makeshift plywood on the windows. They are not only an eyesore, but also bring down the market-value of neighboring houses. Additionally, vacant lots and blighted lots often attract crime, drugs, gang activity, and a lower standard of living for residents. Some of these vacant homes, Levine says, have been empty and ignored for upwards of 8 years.
Levine told the story of an eight year-old girl who he met during one of FIC’s “night-walk” events, where the organization brings out community members to walk in neighborhoods with high rates of violence. Levine asked her what she would change in her neighborhood, and she immediately pointed to one of the handful of boarded-up homes on her block.
“She didn’t need to know the policies or the background of what the business model is to know that this is not right and it’s not normal, and the city could be doing something about it,” said Levine.
The recently-approved 2035 Fresno General Plan includes finding solutions to the problem of blight. One proposal is to replace the plywood on boarded-up homes with durable plexiglass, which improves the appearance of the home and also aims to keep out would-be transient occupants.
In January, Mayor Ashley Swearengin and city officials held a media event to show off how indestructible the plexiglass is by inviting an former professional baseball player Terance Frazier to use a bat to try to break the plexiglass. In a surprise twist the plexiglass broke.
Levine believes local policy makers do understand the need to for strategies to address blighted homes. But he has yet to see results.
“We are hearing that there is a shared concern that this is a real problem,” he said. “I’m just not sure what that means in actual policy change.”
Last October Mayor Swearengin designated a code enforcement task force, which includes City Councilmembers Oliver Baines, Paul Caprioglio, and Clint Olivier, plus other officials and community leaders. During a meeting April 8, the task force will draft a final ordinance for Phase 1 of their project, which includes abandoned homes and urban blight.
FIC has four recommendations for the ordinance: a fee for property owners who have homes vacant for more than 60 days; an inspection on vacant properties before tenants move back in; transparency in code development that includes a periodic report from the city attorney on properties that are improved; an inclusion of a private attorney clause which would allow outside legal action if the city fails to uphold their codes.
Levine said that the recommendations, which are common in other cities across the state, have not been formally declined, but they haven’t been included in any of the drafts so far.
“We have significant concerns about the ordinance…that it isn’t going nearly far enough,” said Levine. “We believe this is a chance to address this problem and we believe the mayor and others want to get this done, but there is a genuine concern of commitment to this.”
Whitney Aguilar and her husband rent a home in the Lowell District, which borders downtown. An abandoned property sits directly across the street and has been unoccupied for a year and a half. Aguilar noted that her landlord wants to purchase it, but has been hitting roadblocks as the city now owns the property.
“It upsets me that the city won’t do more to try and sell it to someone who helps our neighborhood a ton,” said Aguilar.
Around the corner from Aguilar’s home there are signs of revitalization, such as Granville Urban loft apartments which have been filling up as soon as they are built and new restaurants and local businesses sprout up on the Fulton Mall. But Aguilar says even one abandoned property affects the entire area.
“My neighborhood has gotten a lot better in the last 3 years and that house is dragging the street down,” she said.
A Fresno State University-led project has been working alongside FIC to conduct research on the public perception of urban blight. Sociology major Clayton Whited has been involved with the project, where he has been working with open-source technology to track and observe urban blight over time within Fresno. The aim is to understand what causes concentrated areas of blight in certain parts of town.
“The goal is to bring attention to [blight], and then find a way to have community partners, the people who live in the neighborhood, and city officials and the property owners to come together and find a common ground and solution to this,” said Whited.
In the researchers’ first day of canvassing blighted areas, they found 250 vacant and abandoned homes within the city limits.
“It’s very important for us to take what we learned in the classroom and put it into an application outside the field, and be able to do so and do some good in the community you live in,” said Whited of the students involved in the project.
Whited said he would like to see more clearly defined language in the municipal code and a more substantial budget into code enforcement in terms of what the city officials can do.
“There needs to be the means to communicate from the neighborhood to the city and from the city to the neighborhood, and to the property owner, and accountability on all accounts,” said Whited.
Colby Tibbet is a writer based in Fresno, CA. He writes on homelessness and community health, and tells the stories of the unheard in the Central Valley.
Photos provided by Faith in Community