Richmond struggles to hold banks accountable for blight
By Hannah Dreier
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 09/09/2011 04:40:51 PM PDT
Updated: 09/10/2011 09:47:13 PM PDT
This bank-owned vacant property on 1332 24th Street, in Richmond, Calif., is one of several...
Richmond Chief Chris Magnus has for months watched trash accumulate and knee-high weeds grow at a boarded-up house near his home in the city's North and East neighborhood.
The city identified the owner -- Deutsche Bank -- but has been unable to get the property cleaned up, despite having some of the most stringent rules in the Bay Area for maintaining foreclosed homes.
Richmond got tough on blighted properties in 2008 with a law subjecting absentee owners -- often banks -- to fines of $1,000 a day up to $30,000 for neglecting properties.
But with nine code enforcement officers and about 1,500 homes in foreclosure, enforcement has proved difficult, city leaders and staffers say.
Assigning responsibility for empty homes can be tricky. Sometimes, owners walk away or banks avoid retaking the title quickly. Mortgages often change hands several times, and lender information in government databases can lag by as much as six months.
Some banks simply ignore the city's notices, according to code enforcement supervisor Teresa Tingle, with Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo among the worst offenders.
"It's very frustrating, and it's very time consuming," Tingle said. "Who loses out in the end is the people in the community."
Banks say they are doing their best to maintain foreclosed homes. Bank of America inspects more than a million properties nationwide each month to protect its assets, according to spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens.
A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank is looking into its maintenance responsibilities in Richmond. Deutsche Bank declined to comment.
Richmond collected $780,000 in blight fines during the past fiscal year, but Tingle says many property owners are still dodging their responsibilities.
The city has found owners for 35 percent of its vacant homes, but last year $255,000 in blight fines for such homes went unpaid, according to Tingle.
Oakland and Oakley have similar ordinances and have had similarly mixed enforcement results.
Abandoned homes continue to drive down property values in Richmond and attract squatters and drug dealers.
Ruben Rosales can see six abandoned houses from the front steps of his Iron Triangle home. He believes it was squatters in one of them who broke into his garage last year and stole the power tools he needs for construction jobs.
Rosales was one of nearly 100 Richmond residents who gathered at the Nevin Center this week to call on the city to "foreclose" on negligent banks.
Longtime residents told stories of lost homes and deteriorating neighborhoods and expressed anger and frustration about having banks as neighbors.
"You took the homes, clean up the homes," resident TeiJae Taylor said. "We clean up our homes; you clean up your homes."
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles spoke at the rally, sponsored by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and endorsed the creation of a bank report card to help the city determine which institutions it should do business with.
They also pledged to strengthen the blight ordinance with enforcement tools such as court-ordered transfers of bank properties to the city and the seizure of bank assets.
"We in Richmond have seen for far too long that banks do not care about individuals; they only care about profits," Beckles said. "But we care."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier.