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Richmond Neighbors Turn Out to Spruce Up Foreclosed Homes

The following is from the Bay Area media:




By Pamela Tom

Neighbors in several Bay Area cities hope the mortgage bill will help revitalize homes left in limbo, abandoned by people who can no longer afford them. However, some people in Richmond are taking a hand-on approach to keep foreclosed homes from becoming eyesores.

Residents in the East Bay are putting sweat equity into their own home investments by voluntarily maintaining the yards of abandoned homes in the neighborhood.

Three homes on Rich Nelson's street in Antioch have sat vacant for a year following foreclosure. After awhile, Nelson took it upon himself to clean up the overgrown yards.

"When I'd mow my lawn, I would see it. I'd come over and spend probably 10, 15 minutes, you know, just out of frustration," says Nelson.

A few blocks over, we found a gardening crew restoring the yard at a home on Fawn Hill Way. The owners abandoned it last year. Across the street, Peter Wilson not only had to look at it, he had to contend with another foreclosed home next door.

"The weeds in the backyard were three feet tall and they were all seeding into my backyard, so I called the realtor and he came out and brought a crew out actually and cleaned the yard up," says Wilson.

"It's frustrating, it really is. We made our calls to the city and the city came out and they would spray the pool and they'd do what they can, but it's bank owned. That's a whole process," says Nelson.

In Richmond, neighbors are reaping the rewards of self-initiative, spending weekends maintaining the yards of abandoned homes.

"We got together in this neighborhood and said there are homes that need to have their front yards cleaned up because they've been abandoned. Why can't we just go out and take care of it?" says homeowner Kate Sibley.

Together a group of women launched GIVE (Grassroots Initiative for Volunteer Energy). They say it's not a matter of being a good neighbor, it's about protecting their own homes which is their biggest investment.

"We see the financial landscape for what it is -- that this is a problem that's going to be with us for awhile and it's larger than any municipality can handle on its own," says homeowner Kerry Moriarty.

Once a month, Antioch police sponsor a clean-up day in a particular neighborhood. The city provides the supplies and the neighbors provide the labor. They can't legally go on to private property, but they can clean up around it.

In Richmond, the GIVE volunteers say they did some research, and as long as there isn't a no-trespassing sign posted, they can go ahead and clean up.

(Copyright 2008 KGO-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)



Neighbors tend to foreclosures

Upkeep of empty homes falls to weary neighbors

By Paul Burgarino
East County Times

Article Launched: 07/25/2008 08:57:44 PM PDT

Every day, Kristen Hendricks walks by a vacant blue two-story home in her Antioch neighborhood. After months of seeing the front yard of the Deerfield Drive property turn into a suburban jungle of weeds and debris, she decided enough was enough.

Last month, Hendricks took matters into her own hands and started pulling weeds. As she started working, neighbor Karen Emory noticed.

"She asked if I had been hired to clean the yard," Hendricks said. "I told her it was just bothering me, and she felt the same way."

In Richmond's Richmore Village neighborhood, a small group of residents armed with weed wackers and lawn mowers are tackling the front yards of abandoned properties, cutting knee-high grass, pulling weeds and collecting trash. They amass enough trash to fill as many as 10 bags in about an hour. Their slogan: "If not us, who?"

"We understand we can't sit around and let people fix it," Richmond resident Kerry Moriarity said. "That would be nice, but it's not reality. We don't want our neighborhood to look like it's in decline."

In cities throughout Contra Costa County, residents are rolling up their sleeves to combat one of the many consequences of the nationwide mortgage meltdown vacant homes with no one to care for them.

Countywide, lenders sent out 5,046 notices of default from April to June, a 118 percent increase from a year ago, according to numbers released this week by DataQuick Information Services, which tracks real estate trends.

In Richmond, the number of homes lost to foreclosure during that time jumped by 400 percent compared with the same period last year. The number of Antioch homes lost to foreclosure jumped 230 percent in the first four months of the year. Other East County cities saw similar jumps, though the number of Pittsburg homes lost to foreclosure jumped 566 percent over that time span.

Pride in ownership

With more empty homes popping up in neighborhoods, some fear that squatters will use abandoned properties for refuge, vandalism, drug use, metal theft and other abuses. Crime can jump 6.7 percent a year in an area with 100 homes in which two to three foreclose, Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus said, citing a study.

"Homes that look vacant become easy targets for criminals," Magnus said. "It starts with thefts of fixtures and it's a slippery slope from there. Every time a house goes vacant, it has a domino effect in terms of attracting crime and reducing property values."

Concerns also linger that property values will fall as neighborhood aesthetics suffer. The June median home price in the county dropped 37.2 percent to $375,000 from the same month last year, according to DataQuick.

"Rather than let them languish and leave them open to squatters, we figured we'd make them at least fit in with the neighborhood," said Kate Sibley, one of Richmond's Richmore Village residents combating blight.

John Fuller, Pittsburg's public works director, said these concerns were heard constantly during the city's Neighborhood Improvement Team meetings this summer with some residents saying they are taking it upon themselves to landscape abandoned homes.

"It's not something we encourage, but it's not something we discourage, either," he said.

The most common problems reported to Antioch police have been the theft of copper from vacant properties and signs outside of subdivisions, police Chief Jim Hyde said. Neighbors say other vacant properties on Deerfield have been hit by vandals.

Figuring out who should maintain a vacant home is often a moving target.

The problem with property maintenance generally starts when the owner becomes delinquent on payments and neglects property upkeep. Some in the industry say certain banks will avoid retaking the title quickly so they don't have the liability and responsibility of maintaining the properties or paying property taxes.

Even the fastest transfer of title back to the mortgage lender can take months.

"There's no one responsible at that point; the property is literally in limbo," Fuller said.

On Deerfield Drive, a notice of default was put on the house Feb. 21. On June 19, the property was bought with Wells Fargo & Co. as a trustee.

Antioch code enforcement officials said they received complaints in early June, but the weeds were gone by the time they followed up.

Neighbors had complained about the property among themselves before someone contacted the city in June. The yard at one time was beautifully landscaped.

Many banks that own these homes are based on the East Coast far removed from seeing local neighborhood impacts.

"There's no one person responsible for inspection or property upkeep," said East County real estate agent Anthony Davi.

Ron Tremblay, a senior vice president for Wachovia who specializes in repossessed real estate, said once the bank takes ownership of the property, it works "quickly and aggressively" to move properties it owns while "keeping up the appearance of the neighborhood."

Change in attitude

In general, cities have noticed a change in the attitudes of banks as the foreclosure problem continues.

Ryan Graham, coordinator of Antioch's Neighborhood Improvement Team, said he has seen better upkeep of vacant homes peppered throughout city neighborhoods. He credits a change in the attitudes of the banks along with tougher language in city codes and neighborhood involvement.

"Most of the banks have been pretty good," Hyde said. "They realize it's an investment, and the best way to sell their properties is to keep them looking decent."

"Foreclosure is a process that where absolutely no one wins, we're just trying to minimize the pain," Tremblay said. Wachovia maintains the exterior of a property once they obtain ownership, he said.

Real estate agent Marvin Remmich of Danville-based RAM Properties said national banks have become more aware of the local situation, hiring contractors to maintain the "yards, grass, weeds and little things like that."

City officials are trying to tackle the problem with a barrage of citations. In November 2006, Antioch put language into its municipal code that allowed the city to collect unpaid citations through taxes. Assessing citations through the tax roll, a practice used by many other cities, gave the city "more teeth" in getting compliance from homeowners, Antioch City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland said.

Richmond code enforcement team sends correction notices to owners of blighted homes, and puts liens on chronic problem properties for cleanups and administrative citations, said police Sgt. Darren Monahan. Liens are tied to a property, meaning a bank or whoever eventually buys it is responsible for paying it. Officials have compiled a list of bank-owned homes, and they are contacting the banks to try to get the properties maintained.

Last month, the city launched "One Block at a Time," in which officials and residents team up to clean messy areas. They tackled the Parchester Village neighborhood first, and hope to head into the Iron Triangle neighborhood this fall, Magnus added.

To engage residents in their community, Antioch leaders and real estate agents created an informal set of vacant property guidelines that suggest people call to report problems, said Brian Nunnally, a city economic development analyst.

Such information would have helped with the Deerfield Drive home, Hendricks said.

"I didn't know who to call; otherwise, I probably wouldn't have cleaned the place up," she said.

So far, the property on Deerfield has been maintained.

Last week, Hendricks said that six trash bags the neighbors had filled were taken from the property and the bank is doing a good job of maintaining the yard.

"I think I would discourage people from doing what we did, since it could be dangerous," she said. "It's our neighborhood. If we don't care for it, then who will?"

Reach Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164 or pburgarino@bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@bayareanewsgroup.com.

If there are properties in a neighborhood that appear vacant, residents should

  Call the Realtor listed to verify that the property is vacant.

  Ask the Realtor about the property maintenance plan.

  Pick up litter and old newspapers along the sidewalk and street.

  Watch for and report suspicious activity.
If a crime is in progress (i.e. trespassing, theft, vandalism), residents should call the police.
If there is blight on a property (i.e. garbage and debris, standing water, overgrown weeds), residents should call the Realtor first. In Antioch, the code enforcement department is the contact for garbage and debris, the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District is the contact for standing water, and the Contra Costa County Fire District is the contact for weed abatement.
Residents are also encouraged to join or form a Neighborhood Watch Program. In Antioch, call 925-779-6980 for more information. In Richmond, call 510-620-6538 for more information.
Source: City of Antioch

Delta Association of Realtors: 925-757-8283
Antioch Police Dept. (nonemergency): 925-778-2441
Richmond Police (nonemergency): 510-233-1214
Antioch Code Enforcement : 925-779-7042
Richmond Code Enforcement: 510-621-1279
Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District: www.ccmvcd.dst.ca.us
or 925-685-9301
Contra Costa County Fire District Weed Abatement Dept.: 925-941-3673
Antioch Neighborhood Watch Program: 925-779-6980
Richmond Neighborhood Watch/Crime Prevention Office: 510-620-6538