Lamplighter Meets with City Staff

Lamplighter Meets with City Staff to Discuss Options on Vacant Property, Foreclosure and Squatter Problems

On Friday morning, March 23rd, members of the Lamplighter steering committee met with Assistant City Manager Craig  Whittom, Assistant City Attorney Claudia Quintana, Lieutenant Lee Horton of the Vallejo Police Department, and Nimat  Shakoor-Grantham, head of Code Enforcement, to discuss options for dealing with squatters in vacant and foreclosed  properties.

Lamplighter noted that its chief concerns were:

  1. A means for identifying property ownership quickly and efficiently, with a lease registration program to help city staff, police and neighbors determine who has a legitimate right to reside at a given address.
  2. A municipal statute requiring lenders to record change of ownership documents promptly or be fined (to prevent them from holding them until they flip the property at auction or via some other transaction).
  3. A municipal statute that makes it clear who is responsible for property maintenance in the interim period between when foreclosure begins—and homeowners often desert the property—and when the foreclosing lender assumes title.
  4. Establishment of a Squatter Hotline, and a Vacant Properties Coordinator, so that any new duties do not simply overwhelm existing staff.
  5. Greater coordination of other city agencies, including the police, with Code Enforcement in monitoring, maintaining and boarding up vacant, problem or dangerous properties.
  6. Enlistment of volunteers for cleanup crews through Code Enforcement.
  7. Employment of block watch groups to monitor vacant properties and provide information about on-site activity before Code Enforcement “signs off” on them.
  8. Notice to neighborhood watch groups of hearings by property owners seeking fine mitigation for city efforts at cleanup, securing and maintenance of problem properties.
  9. Absolute prohibition of any “cash for keys” programs, by which lenders provide cash to illegal tenants if they promise to leave the premises in 30 days. This has created a subsidy to squatters who go from one empty house to the next seeking money from the banks.

Craig Whittom and Claudia Quintana explained that in their review of what the city could and could not do to address the squatter problem, the “threshold issue” was creation of a social harm by the squatters. Absent such harm—crime on the premises, accumulated trash attracting rats, pools of water breeding mosquitoes, etc.—the city was essentially powerless to force the issue.

Mr. Whittom and Ms. Shakoor-Grantham also agreed to look into a greater coordination among city agencies on vacant property and squatter issues. However, the police department remains overextended, and it’s unlikely the department can do anything more without additional staff—in essence, recreating the Beat Health Program that existed prior to the city bankruptcy.

Lamplighter agreed to petition for Measure B funds to go toward establishing police liaisons with the northern, central and southern sections of town to help coordinate city staff actions against attractive-nuisance properties and other community problems.

In the alternative, Lamplighter will seek the use of reserve officers for these duties, and encourage more citizens to enlist in the Citizens On Patrol volunteer program.

Only the owner can determine who has a right to reside on the premises, and if the owner does not assert that right by alleging trespassing, whoever is in the house is presumed to be there legitimately. The police do not have the resources to verify leases, and if tenants have been given the right to reside on the premises through a “cash for keys” program, there is nothing they can do. Ms. Quintana added that the city cannot ban a contractual practice between banks and whoever resides on properties they own, absent a “social harm.”

Lamplighter determined that a publicity campaign in favor of banks who refuse to employ cash-for-key programs, and singling out those banks that do for criticism and even boycott, is the best option for pushing back against this practice. Ms. Shakoor-Grantham agreed to help Lamplighter determine which banks have been cooperative in problem abatement and which haven’t.

Concerning an efficient means of identifying a property’s owner during foreclosure: Under law, Ms. Quintana explained, the owner of the property is whoever holds title at any given time, and this is on file at the County Recorder’s office. If the owner is a corporation, partnership or other business entity, it must identify its agent for service of process with the Secretary of State, and this agent should be noticed and served with any relevant complaint letters and court filings. If neighbors file a civil abatement action, they should also file a Lis Pendens against the property with the Recorder so any prospective owner knows there is a civil action pending that may affect the property.

Also, municipal statues that take on banking behavior would be meaningless since banks are regulated under federal law, not municipal or even state law. Similarly, recording requirements are dictated by state law, not municipal statute.

However, Mr. Whittom agreed to see what could be done to make ownership information that the city possesses through various databases available to the public, and to look into setting up a Squatter Hotline that helps citizens understand  how to deal with squatters, and direct them to Fighting Back Partnership, the CORE Team or Vallejo Lamplighter on how to address the problem through a civil abatement action.

Although a lease registration program is unlikely—the city does not have the resources for monitoring so much more additional paperwork—Mr. Whittom agreed to look into restricting water, sewage and trash service without a legitimate and verifiable lease or ownership documentation.

Ms. Shakoor-Grantham also noted that she is hoping to re-establish the volunteer program, which in the past proved critical in monitoring, maintaining and cleaning up problem properties. She also agreed to consider greater neighborhood involvement in determining whether a problem property is truly in compliance after being cited for failure to abide by city statutes, and to notice neighbors at any appeals hearing for fine abatement.

Ms. Shakoor-Grantham also noted that she will be holding community forums in the coming months, for Vallejo residents to ask questions and raise concerns regarding poorly maintained properties in their neighborhoods. The first  such meeting will be held May 14th from 5:30-7:00 PM in the Joseph Room at the Vallejo Public Library, 555 Santa Clara Street.

In the end, Lamplighter came away with the following understanding:

  1. The city cannot interfere with the internal procedures of banks, including any cash-for-key programs.
  2. The city’s threshold for dealing with problem properties and improper tenants is social harm—making the
    monitoring of criminal activity all the more important.
  3. Civil Nuisance Abatement actions remain a neighborhood’s greatest weapon against problem properties,
    and the city is willing to assist neighbors in the filing of such actions, including establishment of a “Squatter
    Hotline.”
  4. The city will look into requiring a verifiable lease agreement or title to the property for water, sewage and
    trash service.
  5. Code Enforcement will look into coordinating more effectively with other city agencies, such as the Building
    Department and Housing & Community Development, in addressing problem properties. The police department
    will consider working with the fire department in providing manpower for community liaisons with city staff, specifically Code Enforcement.
  6. Code Enforcement will also soon re-establish its volunteer program, to better provide manpower for
    problem property monitoring and cleanup.
  7. Code Enforcement will also help Lamplighter identify which banks have been most helpful, and which have
    been most difficult, in correcting problems at properties they own.

Lamplighter also agreed to petition city council for the following:

  1. Use of Measure B funds to hire three officers to serve as liaisons between the community and city staff, in
    essence rehabilitating the Beat Health program—or using reserve officers or volunteers in this role, if Measure
    B funds cannot be spared.
  2. Reconsideration of putting a ceiling on fines for violation of the city’s vacant property ordinance to recovery of
    abatement costs. We see no reason why fines should be set a fixed rate—$1000 per day—and enforced
    aggressively against violators.

Lamplighter also came to the realization that it’s necessary to:

  1. Reach out and seek volunteers for the city’s COP volunteer program, and:
  2. Launch a publicity campaign in favor of community-conscious banks, and against those who turn a blind eye
    or even facilitate criminal activity on properties they own, or in other ways help contribute to the decline in the
    quality  of life and property values in our neighborhoods.

Lamplighter will continue to work with the city on these issues and with the squatter problem in the future, with another
meeting with city staff scheduled for Friday, April 27th, at 9:00 AM.

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