Community Restoration CORE Team

By John Allen

In the years before and during the City Of Vallejo’s bankruptcy, a group of concerned citizens came together under Fighting Back Partnership to provide guidance and direction for a grant by the United States Department of Justice.

The effectiveness of this Steering Committee was the primary reason that even without our local police department ability to provide support, we succeeded in many of the strategies required by this grant.

When this grant ended in October of 2011, we did not want to lose the momentum that we had going for us in addressing many of the ongoing problems of our city. Thus was born the Community Restoration CORE Team.

Our vision for this group is this:

By utilizing the Quad Captain system, the group receives and acts as a clearinghouse for reported problems affecting residential neighborhoods throughout the city of Vallejo.

The CORE TEAM Role and Responsibilities:

  • Work with neighborhood groups that report on abandoned or foreclosed properties impacting neighborhoods.
  • Analyze and prioritize, from suggestions of quadrant captains, which problem areas to review.
  • Work collaboratively as a group with Fighting Back Partnership to identify problem properties or areas of the city of Vallejo for intervention.
  • Determine, as a group, which suggested problem properties qualify for a SMART (Specialized Multi-Agency Response Team) intervention and which can be addressed through other means.

In order for the CORE team to adequately identify what type of response will be needed and what priority to give each problem/issue, we need as much information as possible. The following is a suggested format for reporting to the
CORE team.

1. Where and what is the problem? Be descriptive.
2. How long has it been going on?
3. Who has been notified? Beginning when? How often?
4. Has anyone been documenting the problem?
5. How is this impacting the neighborhood or the quality of life for its residents?
(A quality of life issue is identified as anything that impacts your ability to enjoy your home surroundings.)

If you think you would like to participate in the CORE Team’s planning and analysis sessions, come join to one of the group’s meetings. They’re held the second Wednesday of every month at noon (free pizza lunch provided), at:

Fighting Back Partnership
JFK Library Building, Third Floor
505 Santa Clara Street
Vallejo, CA

Get involved! Make your neighborhood what you want it to be.

PROSTITUTES: How to get them out and reclaim your neighborhood

by BJ Conrad

Editor’s Note: The issue of prostitution in Vallejo seemed to recede in the public discussion late last year as election season heated up and the city erected cameras in strategic locations to track both criminal activity and johns appearing at prostitution hotspots to solicit women for sex.

However, Mayor Davis has not reconvened the Prostitution Task Force since before the election, and in the intervening  months prostitutes have begun to reappear, sometimes in new locales, sometimes in the same old places.

In particular, they’ve been seen:

  • On Georgia Street at various locations between the freeway and the waterfront.
  • The parking lot of the Mi Pueblo Food Center on Solano Avenue, taking advantage of the hotels near the freeway
  • St. Vincent’s Hill, especially on Ohio Street between Branciforte and Marin.
  • In Southtown near the corner of Sonoma Boulevard and Magazine Street—unacceptably near Patterson Elementary School and the Norman C. King Center.

Vallejo’s citizens will once again have to rise up and demand the city’s attention to this problem. As the following piece makes clear, prostitution waxes and wanes as a policy concern for the city and the police, but it remains a constant problem for the people living and working in this city.

In 2001, just after buying 930 Marin Street and converting it into a usable gallery, I went by the property to check on it. I parked nearby, and suddenly the passenger door opened and a black woman slithered into the car. We appraised each other in astonishment and busted out laughing just as she was backing out. I wasn’t the client she was looking for.

As the months went on, this sort of thing stopped being funny. I started calling the police on the prostitutes. With Gene Hubert of Beat Health, we organized the neighborhood. That got the attention of Officer Vic Massenkoff.

Ed Boydsden, a landlord since way before I came into the picture, said the local street prostitutes were ruining his business.  He had to drop his rents to get tenants for his apartments. He told me stories about how the city had fought his efforts, subverted them. He said someone working for the city wanted his properties. He said the police would work on it just as long as it took to quiet the neighbors. Although street prostitution was deeply entrenched, no one in city administration really cared enough to create a policy with adequate follow-through to get it out of the neighborhood. I could hardly believe it when he said those things. I wondered if he wasn’t just spinning a good yarn.
After all, the police represented by Officer Vic Massenkoff were putting out a sterling effort. He had just run a sting using my units as the lookout site. He nailed a young guy on a violation. The guy lived in an apartment kitty-corner from 930 Marin and had taken a public leak. That was enough of an indecent exposure charge to earn the pat down that revealed 40-bagged grams of cocaine on him. Off to jail he went.

The neighbors, landlords, and representatives from St. Vincent Hill Association and from the Vallejo Artists’ Guild met at the station with Officer Massenkoff and the owner of the apartment building where the drug dealer lived. We explained the level of nuisance coming from those apartments and Officer Massenkopf informed the property owner that harboring a drug dealer could cost him a $25,000 fine, his property could be seized, or he could get jail time. He needed to get rid of both households in that duplex or the neighbors would sue him.

He did the evictions. I bought his derelict building, fixed it, and leased it to artists. The war was won. Between Vic’s good  policing, good landlording, activist neighbors, the Vallejo Artists Guild, and community support through Gene Hubert’s Beat Health program, the streetwalker and drug problems nearly disappeared, creating a bubble of peace.

Time passed. But the city’s lack of a consistent policy against street prostitution meant the neighborhood could not solidify its newly crime-free status.

One day I was outside drawing ideas for remodeling two other buildings in the little art enclave that was beginning to grow. A lightly clad woman sauntered by. Then another. And then, within the hour, eight flaunting prostitutes had burst my little bourgeois bubble of art, boutiques, and neighborhood events. I’d hope to emulate downtown Sonoma. Instead, the Marin Street Track was just like before.

A policeman in a patrol car told me, ”It’s been like this for decades. Nothing can be done.” But something had been done. Its benefits had been squandered.

I rolled up my sleeves and went back at it:

  1. 1. I returned to city staff armed with the “L” word: Liability. If they didn’t get rid of the ad hoc beer bar/public pisseur/pimp training facility/prostitute hangout,” otherwise known as the bus stop, they could be facing damage claims from commuters as well as neighbors. A day after that warning, a crane came and lifted it off the sidewalk and carried it away.
  2. I called the cops repeatedly, every time I saw criminal activity on the street.
  3. I scheduled a meeting with Lieutenant Reggie Garcia and 13 fellow neighborhood residents. Every woman in the neighborhood, from 13-60 years of age, had been propositioned. And now they were plotting a Faux Ho Decoy Patrol,  but were upstaged by Lieutenant Garcia’s john and prostitute sting that next weekend. It cleared the Track overnight.

The police also responded by instituting the bicycle patrol. It was the most effective and economical police response to the problem, working well to control prostitution and, as an added perk, providing the police with a great PR  opportunity.

It worked brilliantly for a few years, until someone failed to apply for the $100K grant in time to re-fund the unit.

Once again, something was done. And its benefits were squandered.

A slow, steady decline resulted from unfocused and intermittent policing without underlying policy. Two and a half  years later Marin Street looked like the Amsterdam Red Light District with a prostitute from every city, county, and state on every corner and a pimp or two nearby.  The lack of police response had the neighbors struggling simply to keep the used condoms off the sidewalks and out of their landscaping. It was the worst ever.

What could we do but once again go on the offensive? We called the police again and again, formed a neighborhood watch group with the help of Fighting Back Partnership, held neighborhood meetings and started neighborhood patrols, conducted informational protests before city council with poster images of the prostitutes—all of it amplified by a TV  and newspaper media blitz.

Finally the city heard the neighborhood. City Manager Phil Batchelor ordered police to respond to crime calls from the  neighborhood. Mayor Davis formed the Task Force Against Prostitution that developed a 16-point program to fight  prostitution. The neighborhood appointed five members to attend the sentencing hearing for the most egregious  prostitute and present a victim impact statement with signatures in open court. Local citizen Buck Kamphousen stepped up to the plate in a big way with his purchase of a half dozen Internet-controlled cameras at $22k each and had them installed them strategically.

After five years of discussions in Vallejo, Police Chief Nichelini requested and received approval from the California Attorney General to seize cars used in committing crimes. The new Solano County District Attorney, Donald du Bain, promised to convict and sentence prostitutes. This meaningful progress within the system had been huge.

Again something has been done. For the time being quiet reigns in our neighborhood. No more johns direct their gazes at every woman who braves Marin Street on foot. Pimps no longer proposition pubescent girls to hook for them in City Park, in the school play yards, or in the children’s own yards.

Will we let this new standard of normalcy languish as we have so many times before?

Here’s what we learned worked:

  1. Consistent, aggressive policing and working surveillance cameras dropped the number of prostitutes by 80%.
  2. Informed neighbors motivated the city and police to action.
  3. When the media kept the spotlight on the issue, good things happened.
  4. The most effective actions carried the threat of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. The stick is mightier than the carrot, at least in Vallejo.
  5. Victim impact statements told the court that prostitution has victims and it cannot be ignored; rather, strong sentencing will deter the crime.
  6. All these actions combined sent a message to the prostitutes: Vallejo was not the place to do business because it does have enforcement.

Not everything is rosy.

  1.  Some key elements of the 16-point program have not been implemented: In particular, there is still no aggressive targeting of johns and pimps. It will be difficult to truly rebuild our neighborhoods without using every tool available, but especially this one.
  2. We still lack an effective way to match offender faces to names. This limits our ability to be effective witnesses.
  3. Repeated requests from neighbors who want to step forward and be witnesses have largely gone unanswered by the police.
  4. Cooperation from the Vallejo Times Herald in publishing names and photos of offenders is still a dream. The paper claims it prints what the police report. The police say the paper does not fully utilize the reports they provide.

Things have improved but need to get even better. If we’re going to prevent another blasé backslide into the old routine, with criminal activity taking over our neighborhoods, we need to work together with the same purpose, focused on what works, with the cooperation of city officials, the courts and the police. It’s the only way we can truly eliminate crime and blight for the long term, not just for the time being.

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
  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.

How to tell if you have squatters living near by

By Ann Smith

Here are some clues that your neighborhood may have been invaded by squatters.

There is a foreclosed property in your neighborhood. The old neighbors have moved out and the house is empty.

Slowly there are changes to the property. The lawn looks overgrown. There are weeds, and trash around the house. The property’s appearance continues to deteriorate. The doors or windows may be open or damaged. You see strange vehicles on your street, often in the late evening hours.

You notice that some things are missing from the property, maybe light fixtures, maybe some lawn ornaments. Small changes are occurring to the property on a daily basis.

Then one night you go to bed as usual and wake up the next morning to find all the windows in the property have been covered with sheets, blankets, or cardboard.  There are vehicles parked at the property. You may not see anyone for a few days because all the activity seems to take place at night — and some of that activity will be people unloading a truck in the darkness. (Rarely is there any electricity at the property right away — that will come later when they either lie to PG&E to get service back on or jerry-rig the power by stealing it from the power lines nearby.).

The new “neighbors” may keep a low profile—no waving, no hellos. In time, though, over the next few days or weeks (they can’t avoid all contact forever), they may introduce themselves to the closest neighbors. The stories may vary  from, “We bought the place” to “We’re renting.” Things seem a little off. You may be curious as to whom they rented from or bought from. You never saw any signs.

Nighttime activity at the property begins to pick up. There are cars that come by and stop briefly indicating there might be drug dealing taking place. Unusual activity begins to occur (again, mostly at night). The people who occupy the property seem to change. New people come and go. There are new vehicles, often with expired license plates.

At some point the lights come on. There still may be no trash service, however. So garbage may start appearing in your or your neighbors’ cans the night before garbage pickup.

Petty thefts or burglaries may start occurring in your neighborhood. A bike or a picnic table goes missing.  Small items that are useful or easily turned into cash disappear from your yard or car. Houses are broken into.

All of these changes can indicate that squatters have arrived.

To combat these squatters your best defense is to know your neighbors and know when they are in foreclosure. Ask questions when you see your old neighbors leaving.

In particular:

  • Find out when the owners expect to leave, and get a phone number for them in case you need to call them.
  • Learn which bank is taking over the property, and get a contact name and number at the bank so you can inform them if squatters appear.

The legal owner is the only one with the right to allege trespassing. You’ll need to have this information handy if you call the police.

Cash For Keys and Other Disasters *Update*

By Ann Smith

Well, after two years of problems I can finally say that my block is “free at last” of squatters. The problem property sold at auction and a real estate group that is buying up foreclosed properties in Vallejo at a rapid rate bought the house.

With the help of a bank REO Agent I was able to contact the new owner of the property.  The next day a representative knocked on my door. I will call him Sam. He wanted to know about the “tenants” in the property. I told Sam all about his tenants by referring to the log I have kept on the property for two years. Sam was a nice man. However I let Sam know that I intended to pursue Civil Nuisance Abatement ASAP if he did not remedy the problem at the property within a reasonable amount of time. I immediately sent him a Civil Nuisance Abatement Letter giving him 90 days to evict the tenants. (It takes 90 days to evict tenants under California law whether they are legal or illegal tenants,) With assistance and information provided by the neighborhood watch group Sam was able to evict the squatters before the 90 days were up. Peace has returned to our neighborhood. All of the problems with prostitution, drug dealing,
and violence have moved away.

The house is now being restored into a livable property. Hopefully the new tenants will be great neighbors and will add to rather than subtract from the neighborhood.

Lessons learned:

1.Be a nosy neighbor.

2. Keep tabs on houses in your neighborhood. If a house looks like it may be in foreclosure talk to the current owner and ask him what his plans are about the house.

3. Encourage the owner to get help and not to leave the property until evicted. This gives the mortgage holder time to prepare for the move and accumulate cash. It also lessens the time the house will be vacant.

4. Get information about the bank that is proceeding with foreclosure action. This allows you to have information about who will be in possession of the property. Many banks are not transferring titles on properties until the property sells at auction. This can make it difficult to find out who owns the property.

5. If you suspect squatters have moved into the empty house, try to contact the bank as soon as possible. You can contact a real estate agent or Fighting Back Partnership in order to find out who owns the property.

6. Don’t hesitate. Send out a Civil Nuisance Abatement letter to the bank or owner as soon as possible. The information about Civil Nuisance abatement is available at Fighting Back Partnership.

7. Call Code Enforcement or file an online report immediately if there are violations on the property. There is now an ordinance in place that allows Code Enforcement to require banks to maintain their properties, with $1000/day penalty if they don’t.

8. Call the police as soon if you see criminal or suspicious activity on the property.

9. Report to the police all vehicles that are illegally parked or have expired tags.

10. Have Recology pick up their recycling and trash containers if the property is vacant.

11. Do not hesitate to bring the information to the Core Team at Fighting Back Partnership by filling out the Problem House Form on this web site.

12. Keep a log about activities at the property. Make sure you include the time and date of the incident, what took place, and how it made you feel.

13. Alert your neighbors about the foreclosed property.

This process requires persistence and patience. These are the crucial requirements for evicting squatters.