Latest Fatal Fire Highlights Noted Problems at Fresno Apartment Complex

Wednesday's tragedy wasn't the first at the Summerset Village.
(Fresno Fire Department)

A long history of habitability issues

Manuela Tobias, The Fresno Bee

(MCT)

Jan. 24—FRESNO — A fire last week that left one man dead in his central Fresno apartment was at least the third fire at the Summerset Village complex in less than a year.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Wednesday’s tragedy wasn’t the first at the Summerset Village. The 200-plus unit, single-story complex at the corner of North Angus Street and East Weldon Avenue has long been the poster child for habitability issues in Fresno.

Two other fires broke out in April and November of 2020. The complex was the scene of seven fires between 2010 and 2015, a Fresno fire official confirmed.

In November 2015, after years of neglect by an absentee landlord, over 1,000 tenants, most of whom are Southeast Asian immigrants, were left without heat or hot water for a month after PG&E shut off the gas at the complex over safety concerns, including numerous gas leaks. At least one resident died from pneumonia.

Tenants filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in 2015.

The Fresno City Council declared a state of emergency and catalyzed a series of changes to city code enforcement.

The crisis at Summerset prompted The Bee in 2016 to investigate substandard housing issues all over the city in a series called “Living in Misery.”

“This complex has obviously been an issue since before I was on the council,” said City Councilmember Nelson Esparza, who represents District 7 where the apartment complex is located. “I’m committed to getting to the bottom of it and making sure we hold the landlord accountable.”

Esparza said city code enforcement officers were sent over to investigate on Wednesday morning.

According to city code enforcement documents, the apartments were bought by DGE Investments LLC around March 2020. The company is based in San Francisco.

DGE property supervisor Victoria Robinson declined to comment for this story.

Cause of the deadly fire in Fresno under investigation

Around 4 a.m. Wednesday, Richard Lee, 56, woke up to screams.

“Fire! Fire! Help! Help!” he said he heard his next-door neighbor yell.

Another neighbor saw dark smoke coming from the window and called 911, according to Lee. The call describing “banging and yelling” came in at 4:12 a.m., according to the Fresno Fire Department.

Firefighters initially awaited reinforcements to enter, but they forced open the door when they learned somebody was inside. After an initial search, they found the body under the collapsed door.

The Fresno County Coroner’s Office identified the victim as Steven Rogers, 58, of Fresno.

While the autopsy has not yet been completed, Jay Tracy, deputy fire marshal in charge of investigations, said he believes the victim died of smoke inhalation.

Tracy said he believes Rogers died before the firefighters forced down the door.

“You only have to take a couple of inhalations of those hot gases,” Tracy said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Tracy said it was likely accidental. He suspected a candle, the stand for which was found near the fire’s origin, or electrical issues.

“He had a bunch of stuff plugged in. He had extension cords running,” Tracy said. “(These units are) just not built to hold that much stuff.”

Fire damage did not extend into any other units, according to Tracy. Rogers’ other next-door neighbor, Nancy Ly, said she and her family were looking for a hotel room with help from the Red Cross until utilities are restored.

Tracy said investigators were unable to determine whether another fire on April 14, 2020, was caused by an outlet or a broken power cord, but it was accidental. A fire on Nov. 11, 2020, was caused by a gas heater, the first day residents tried to turn it on, he said.

A long history of habitability issues

Pahoua C. Lor, the Fresno lawyer who represented the tenants in the 2015 lawsuit over living conditions, said she was under the impression the apartment complex’s electrical issues were resolved and all the repairs had been addressed in 2016.

But over the last five years, city inspections turned up dozens of violations, including leaks, black mold, cockroach and mice infestations, heating issues and multiple missing or damaged smoke detectors, some as late as this month, according to code enforcement records obtained by The Fresno Bee under the Public Records Act.

An inspector on Jan. 6 reported no heat, black mold, and roach and mice infestations in one apartment.

An inspector who visited another unit in September last year reported a leaking toilet, damaged bathroom floors, a cockroach infestation and missing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

In December 2019, an inspector wrote that one apartment did not have heat, so tenants were using their oven to stay warm. The same inspector reported a leak in the living room and a roach infestation.

An inspector in 2018 reported smelling a dead rat, the smell of which was more pungent when the heater was turned on.

Records show most of the issues were addressed within weeks.

Melanie Noy Lee, 18, who has lived at Summerset Village all her life, described frequent electrical issues. She said the lights often flicker or turn off altogether, and tenants often have to call PG&E themselves.

“It’s very exhausting trying to get help and trying to have a stable apartment to live in,” she said. “What we’re really hoping is the owners will be proactive in working with the residents to remedy the situation.”

Janine Nkosi, a sociology professor at Fresno State and organizer with Faith in the Valley, has partnered with Lee and other residents to start a tenant association to improve communication between tenants and their landlord.

“On the one hand, you’re living with the concern that your home might not be safe because of electrical issues,” Nkosi said. “But you also are living in fear that if they make the repairs that are needed, you’re not going to be able to afford rent.”

Nkosi said rents had increased significantly since the 2015 crisis, despite promises that they wouldn’t.

Advocates said it would be easy to just write off Summerset Village as slum housing. But residents choose to live there because of the multicultural community they have fostered.

The majority of residents are Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian immigrants and refugees who have lived in the complex for decades, mixed in with Hispanic, Black and white families. The apartment complex is unusually green — many residents grow their own fruits and vegetables, including papaya, Chinese broccoli and even bananas — on parcels in front of their homes and along the fencing.

“It’s a special place,” said Christine Barker, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries. “My question is, how do we as a community protect the good at Summerset — the relationships and the community and the gardens — while making sure our elders can sleep at night?”

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