Code Enforcers Battle Foreclosure Blight

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Jose Mendez is one of the two-dozen Code Enforcement Officers that Sacramento County sends out in the field every day. We get into a silver four-dour sedan with the County seal emblazoned on the side, and Mendez lays out today’s agenda.   

"I’m going to take you to a couple of properties that are just nice neighborhoods but are just blighted because of the foreclosure issue and then we’ll move down to the really bad areas where you’re going to see the effect immediately - all the issues that we’re dealing with."   

Issues like illegal dumping, vandalism and squatting. 

Our first stop…a North Highlands neighborhood where residents are complaining about an abandoned home. 

Code Enforcement is mainly complaint-driven, so they respond when people call. Mendez says, a year and a half ago, they’d get only two to three calls a week about blighted homes.   

"Now, on a really busy week you’re probably looking at about eight to ten complaints." 

Mendez has worked in Code Enforcement for three years. When he started out, most of his time was spent writing up tickets for abandoned vehicles or people parking on their front lawns. But those infractions have become almost trivial compared to all the abandoned homes Mendez deals with now. 

"This is spreading like cancer. It’s not just in the really low income neighborhoods, it’s everywhere now." 

We get to North Highlands…and see a modest neighborhood with well-groomed yards…until we spot a home with a “for sale” sign posted in bone dry dirt where a front lawn should be. The weeds are high and the garage door is tilted and off its tracks.

We go through a side gate to check out the back yard and see four foot high weeds. 

"The weeds back here are getting pretty high. The summer’s coming which is a fire hazard."
SM: "Would you say this is pretty bad?"
JM: "No, there’s worse (laughs). So this is actually not that bad."

But this is the second time in 15 days that Mendez has inspected this property. He’ says he’ll call the real estate agent again and give him another chance to cut the weeds and fix the garage door. Meantime, today’s inspection will cost whoever owns the home $240. 

Mendez says sometimes mortgage companies or banks that own the homes are quick to fix problems…but other times he says a Code Enforcement notice is just another sheet of paper in the real estate industry’s growing stack of problems. 

We get back in the car and as Mendez promised earlier, he takes us to one of the really bad areas…in Oak Park.

We approach a strip of six rundown, vandalized duplexes. The garage doors are peppered with orange splotches from paint guns. We walk between two of the units to get to the back yard and the ground is covered in shards of glass from the broken windows. The sliding glass door in the back patio is open. 

JM: Knock, knock knock – "Code Enforcement anybody in here?" 

We walk into the empty duplex and it’s evident the place has been stripped.   

"Someone’s removed the kitchen sink. All the shelves, the vent, the light fixtures, the light bulbs, they tore out the floor."  

Mendez declares the building unsafe and posts a warning in the front of the home which also warns any squatters they’ll be subject to arrest. 

We get back in the car and Mendez takes us to our final destination…the South Sacramento neighborhood of Gigi Place and Della Circle, off of 68th Avenue.

This low-income neighborhood has been devastated by the foreclosure crisis. About half of the 40 parcels in this three block radius have been foreclosed…and out of those, 15 have been boarded up by Code Enforcement. 

As we turn the corner onto Della we’re confronted by a trash heap in the middle of the street. People have been illegally dumping rubbish in front of a row of abandoned duplexes. The pile is roughly five feet high and 15 feet long.      

"You have people that take advantage of these properties being vacant and they just come out and…I mean look at this pile, this is huge. You have mattresses, you have appliances, you have scrap wood, toys, furniture, it goes on and on. That’s probably the biggest pile that I’ve seen." 

It doesn’t take long before one of the neighbors gives Mendez an earful about the pile. The woman says she caught someone dumping trash there in the middle of the night.     

Resident: "I opened my door, I go ‘what are you doing?’ and he got in the truck and took off real fast. He was dumping because there was a lot of junk in there the next morning."

Jose: "Well, you need to call us when that happens. You know you get paid for that right?"

Resident: "Give me one of your cards. It’s not about the money. It’s about I want my area clean too.  

After Mendez gives the woman his card we drive around the block to check on a few duplexes that Mendez has cited for blight in the past. There’s a pickup truck in front of one of them and we can see a man working in the garage…making repairs. 

"So let’s find out if he’s an owner or contractor. Buenos Dias…"   

Mendez talks to the workers. Turns out, someone recently bought the dilapidated home and is restoring it. This is one of the occasional success stories that Mendez sees from time-to-time…where a property has come full circle. He says it’s the rewarding part of his job.
"It feels good to see the overall effect of your work. Just stand at the end of that street and say ‘I was able to do this.’"

Mendez says he looks forward to saying those words more frequently…but he thinks that’s still quite a ways off…as the number of local home foreclosures continue to rise and are expected to keep going up through the end of this year.