Petaluma’s Vacant Homes–Holding Back The Blight

It is not “news” to report that the national recession has taken its toll on homeowners in the form of foreclosures.  Even a casual observer can see that Petaluma is also suffering from the foreclosure tsunami.

In some of Petaluma’s neighborhoods, more and more homes are sprouting  bank foreclosure notices… 

abandoned-homes-august-2009-003

or “”For Sale” signs–sometimes two…

For Sale For Sale...

Vacant Homes

Unoccupied homes can become an eyesore if they are not maintained or, even worse, they can become an attraction for vandals or squatters. In some cities, squatters have moved in and established utilities, thus living rent-free until discovered. Since banks take forever to put a property up for sale, squatters can live for up to 18 months before being evicted.  For a TIme article on the situation in Stockton, Ca. (Click Here)

Fortunately, things have not gotten this bad in Petaluma. However, I do wonder if we may have more vacant homes than homeless people.

There is something you can do to help prevent a problem developing with an unoccupied home in your neighborhood.

City Code Enforcement

If there is a property in your neighborhood that you think is becoming a problem, you should contact Code Enforcement…

  • Go to their Web Page  and click on the link titled “On-line Complaint/Violation Form” (Preferred Method of Contact)
  • In the alternative, call the Code Enforcement Complaint Line at 707-778-4469

If you suspect drug and gang activity, call the Police Department directly at 707-778-4372.

If you have general questions, you can also contact Code Enforcement by e-mail at codeenforcement@ci.petaluma.ca.us

Citizen reporting is essential, as City staffing levels do not permit pro-active enforcement.  The identity of those making inquiries or complaints is not disclosed.  They “… have no problems being the bad guy, so you don’t have to. Due to our lack of staffing, we may not be able to address every complaint right away, but we will get to it…Keeping your neighborhood clean and maintained is one of the best ways to deter crime and keep your property values up.”

As an aside, while this article focuses on coping with problems with unoccupied houses, you should also contact Code Enforcement if you have concerns about a house that is occupied.

When to Report

If something does not look or seem right, feel free to contact Code Enforcement or the Police Department as outlined above. Some signs to look for include…

  • Overgrown vegetation
  • Weeds that haven’t been cut or pulled
  • Graffiti
  • Piles of junk, trash and garbage.

Recently, a vacant home purchased in foreclosure was being remodeled for resale. The contractors left the house unattended with the front windows and garage door open–for two days. It was an open invitation for mischief.  Fortunately, a neighbor decided to call the police on the second night and they came out and secured the property.

Another current case involves a vacant foreclosed property with open windows, curtains blowing outside the window, and an unsecured garage door. In addition, newspapers, flyers and new phone books can be observed littering the front sidewalk…

abandoned-homes-august-2009-005abandoned-homes-august-2009-001

In closing, keep in mind that even when a complaint is addressed by the City, there are usually additional delays because the process of identifying the owner (usually a bank) is quite cumbersome.  In some cities, such properties have become so numerous they have initiated legal action against the banks.

Let’s hope it does not come to that in Petaluma…

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5 thoughts on “Petaluma’s Vacant Homes–Holding Back The Blight

  1. Frank, I sent this solution to the council about 1 year ago???

    More and more California cities are requiring banks/owners of foreclosed homes maintain them. Some make it mandatory to register a foreclosed home with the City + pay a fee. If the homes are not kept up they get fined daily ($for the City) and/or the City does the upkeep and the banks are billed for it. All costs are recovered + some and this keeps the values of the homes and surrounding neighborhood from plummeting because of blight, which in turn brings in more money to the City (property tax) well maybe not more but it prevents it from being less.

    FORECLOSURE CRISIS & CALIFORNIA A report by the staff of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer— Declining Revenues and Increased Blight: Local governments are faced with sharp drops in property taxes and development fees collected, while unemployment in the construction and financial sectors is spiking. At the same time there is great concern about the number of vacant properties that are becoming magnets for vandalism and crime. To address this latter problem, several communities have passed ordinances requiring lenders to maintain foreclosed properties or face stiff penalties.

    The Ordinance is on the City of Murrieta home page http://www.murrieta.org/

    Murrieta cracks down on maintenance of foreclosed homes—The City Council voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that would make banks responsible for the maintenance of properties of which they have taken possession.

    The Abandoned Property Registration and Maintenance Ordinance would go into effect in April following a second vote on the ordinance in March. The regulation would require mortgage holders, even if they are out of the area or in a different state, to be responsible for the upkeep and security of properties by registering them with the city as they go into foreclosure or are abandoned.

    Lenders and investors would be required to keep the properties at the standard level of that neighborhood, city staff reports state. City officials hope that maintaining the empty homes and their grounds will keep property values high, avoid blight, discourage criminal activity and reduce the amount of calls to the Murrieta police and code enforcement departments.

    “We actually have a caseload waiting,” said Linda Mejia, a senior code enforcement officer, during a special workshop on the foreclosure issue Tuesday. “Even if the lawn is green, (a) broken fence tells us there’s something wrong with that property.” The ordinance stipulates that as a property goes into foreclosure and becomes the possession of a lender, that lender would have to register the property with the city and pay a fee of $70 per year. The lenders would then face fines on an increasing scale if their properties slip below acceptable standards.

    Lenders would be charged $100 per day for failing to register the property or failing to post that the property is bank-owned; $250 for allowing the lawns to die or if graffiti, litter or weeds are not removed; $500 for unmaintained swimming pools with stagnant water, unsecured structures on the property; and up to $1,000 if the city learns public utility theft happens from the property. The fines could mount up to $100,000, the ordinance states, and could be used to issue a lien against the property. The homes would be monitored on a monthly basis by a code enforcement officer — whose cost would be offset by the fines, city administrators said.

    • Believe it or not, I am familiar with the ordinance you mentioned, as well as others. The problem IMHO is that people (including our City Council) don’t tend to think or act proactively on these “technical” isues–like having a fire extinguisher in the garage BEFORE a fire). Would it not have been far better to have had such an ordinance on the books and hit a few banks with fines and then the banks or realtors might pay attention? Instead we’ll just slog on. I tried to be “hopeful” in the article. However, I gotta tell you I am NOT optimistic–at least not for my ‘Hood. There are six vacant homes–in need of attention within 50 yards from where I am sitting. Sigh…..

  2. Excellent article Frank. Empty houses mean less and less dollars coming in to our city coffers. Diane is correct. Not only do we need the ordinances on the books, we need the enforcement There are many ways our fair city could be raising funds so to speak, such as:
    1. Fine the banks and/or the real estate company if they don’t maintain the property.
    2. Private storage on our public streets, i.e inoperative vehicals should be sited and towed
    3. Vehicles not moved on street cleaning days should be sited
    There are many city codes already on the books that are ignored due to a lack of enforcement. Why? We don’t want to upset people? That’s why we have neighborhoods that look the way they do. We need to care about our neighborhoods, we need to get involved. But we need the support of the city. We need enforcement.

    • Your point on enforcment is a good one. However we are between a rock and a hard place–Staffing does not permit regular enforcement and I am not sure that people would tolerate regular enforcement even if we had the funds for it. Particularly when it comes to vehicles if you think back a few years :-).

      On the other hand how do we prevent the situation from becoming like Stockton?

  3. Pingback: Foreclosed & Forgotten? - Petaluma Spectator - Petaluma 360 - Petaluma, CA - Archive

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