It was with great interest that I read the July 7 article "Budget cuts amid tall tasks," which described the significant blight facing the city of Richmond and undoubtedly many other communities struggling with budget cuts and reduced staffing.
The article specifically discussed the challenges of combating blight while cutting budgets and code enforcement staffing. In the article, a code enforcement supervisor stated the following: "Nobody takes responsibility for the house, so it's our job to take care of it."
No, the responsibility for maintaining the property rests with the owner, and if a foreclosed property, the responsibility rests with the bank. Please let me offer some insight based on more than a decade of experience as a code enforcement official for the city of San Jose.
San Jose experienced a significant increase in the number of vacant/abandoned residential structures from 2008-2011 due to the sudden collapse of the housing market.
I recall specifically the organization PACT (People Acting in Community Together) demanding action on the part of the city of San Jose in holding banks/lenders responsible for the maintenance and security of residential structures that were vacated due to what was perceived to be predatory lending practices.
In response, the city immediately adopted a policy that held banks/lenders responsible for the maintenance and security of vacant residential structures. Our basis, which was reviewed and approved by the city attorney, held that banks/lenders possessed a "controlling" interest in the property, and since the property owner vacated the property due to foreclosure, the city had no other alternative other than to hold the lender responsible for ensuring that the vacant building did not create a nuisance that would negatively impact the neighborhood.
Please understand that San Jose's code enforcement also faced deep budget cuts and dedicated one full-time code enforcement inspector to respond to complaints. In addition, all other field staff was expected to identify and report unsecured and blighted property to the vacant building inspector.
We also established an immediate policy, known as the no-tolerance policy, which held banks/lenders responsible for ensuring that any vacant property in which they held a financial interest was secure and well-maintained. Vacant properties that were discovered to be unsecured and/or in a blighted condition would result in the levying of administrative fines of $250 per violation, without warning.
For example, if code enforcement staff inspected a vacant property wherein the residence was not secure, had overgrow weeds, an accumulation of garbage and/or graffiti, the property owner, which was most likely the bank/lender that had foreclosed on or was in the process of foreclosing on the property, would be immediately fined $1,000.
In addition, if the property were not brought into a secure and clean condition, the bank/lender would be assessed fines daily until the property was in compliance. The imposition of fines, in some cases on a daily basis, demonstrated to the community that code enforcement was responsive and, more importantly, that banks/lenders were going to be held to the same standards in property maintenance as any other resident in the community.
Besides administrative fines, banks/lender were also required to register the property with the city as a neglected vacant structure, allowing the city to recoup costs associated with quarterly inspections of the property.
Finally, any abatement performed by the city, such as the boarding-up of the structure, the removal of overgrown weeds or garbage, and the painting of graffiti, was handled by a contractor, hired by the city, who was responsible for addressing any immediate health and safety condition on the property within 24 hours. All subsequent abatement costs not paid by the bank/lender resulted in a tax lien recorded against the property.
Our policies, although not immediately successful, eventually achieved the desired results as soon as banks/lenders realized that it was cheaper to maintain their properties than to pay the thousands of dollars of administrative fines and abatement costs that were being issued.
Their eventual change in attitude helped to bring a corresponding change in the public's perception of them, from predatory lenders to responsible property owners.
I would encourage Richmond to consider the adoption of similar laws that require property owners, including banks/lenders, to be responsible for ensuring that their properties do not blight the neighborhood, and that failing to do so would result in immediate fines.
Listen to the community and hold property owners, including banks/lenders, accountable.
Michael Hannon is the former code enforcement official for the city of San Jose.