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    Lamplighter Meets with City Staff to Discuss Options on Vacant Property, Foreclosure and Squatter
    Problems
    Posted by webmaster on 03/30/2012


    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.