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Beyond belief: Substandard rentals in Madera

Beyond belief. That would be one way to describe some of the substandard rental units in which people live in Madera.

Just a few of the conditions the city’s code enforcers see when they are called to inspect a substandard rental:

  • Rats caught in glue traps in open walls, struggling to get free in areas where children play.

  • Electric space heaters that never shut off and often overheat because their thermostats have been disabled and they have been permanently wired “on.”

  • Water running down walls from leaky roofs.

  • Bug and rodent infestations in holes in walls and furniture.

  • Furniture discarded outside because bedbugs have taken up residence in couches and chairs, and beds where children once slept.

  • Children sleeping on thin blankets on floors because their bug-ridden beds have been discarded.

  • Exhaust fans that don’t work.

  • Toilets that don’t drain into sewers, but are drained outside onto lawns and in weed patches.

  • A toilet, in use, that is placed flat on the concrete floor of a garage without a drain. The garage has been turned into a bedroom by using cast-off mattresses as room dividers. The bedroom is used by children.

  • Exposed wiring everywhere.

  • A kitchen sink being drained into a bucket sitting on planks so filthy they are barely recognizable.

  • Thick coatings of black mold on ceiling and wall surfaces.

  • No hot or cold running water.

  • An absolutely sickening stench of rotting wood, decaying corpses of rodents, animal feces, human feces and garbage.

And that is just the beginning of some of the sights and odors that greet Madera code inspectors who respond to complaints of substandard living conditions in some of the more than 3,300 Madera rental units considered to be in violation of the state housing code.

These conditions were among those revealed Wednesday night by Madera Neighborhood Rehabilitation Specialist Steven Montes before a packed meeting of the Successor Agency to the Madera Redevelopment Agency, which runs code enforcement for the city.

He said such conditions were dangerous for children and adults alike. Mold and germs can be breathed in and contaminate food, causing asthma and worse, causing children to miss school, Montes said.

Holes in floors can cause people to trip and fall.

People can catch colds, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. Children can catch infections from one another in the crowded conditions, and spread them to other children they encounter at schools.

What are considered crowded conditions? More than one resident per room, Montes said, not counting bathrooms or a kitchen. Thus, for a two-bedroom apartment with a living room, more than three people would be considered overcrowding. In some rental units in Madera, say firefighters who often respond to fires in such homes, as many as six to a dozen people may be found in such a unit.

Montes’s report came from efforts on the part of city officials and a group of Realtors who have been getting together to work out a tougher rental housing inspection code, which would make it easier than it currently is for code enforcers to enter properties they believe may be noncompliant.

Now, they can only involve themselves in a substandard housing situation when they have probable cause.

The highest level of probable cause is when a tenant complains about conditions in his or her rental unit and invites inspectors to become involved. If the inspectors find violations, they let the landlord know and serve notice that the problem, whatever it is, must be corrected.

Other examples of probable cause may be notification from an outside source, such as a neighbor or a teacher, who may notice evidence that a child is living in squalor and may inform code enforcers.

The problem with the present system is that many of the tenants are unaware they have a right to certain living standards such as hot and cold running water, adequate heat, a non-leaking roof, adequate sanitation and absence of hazardous conditions.

A landlord may call and threaten them with eviction or with turning them over to immigration authorities when he or she gets notice that the tenant has complained.

According to Montes, those threats work. The tenants refuse the inspectors future entrance to the property.

Other tenants, he said, don’t know what their rights might be.

The new ordinance, which was discussed Wednesday night, would relax certain probable-cause requirements and apply a fine and licensing structure on landlords who don’t comply.

The Realtors who serve on the committee drafting the ordinance say one problem with it would be that landlords already complying with the law would be punished with the “bad guys.”

“We are not in favor of slumlords,” said property manager George Harper, who chairs the committee. “But why punish a whole community of professionals to catch a few bad actors?”

He said it would be fairly easy to identify which properties are most likely to require mitigation. No decisions about the proposed code were made Wednesday night. Discussion on the code will continue in months to come.

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