By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Weedy, overgrown front yards. Junked appliances piled outside. Boarded up doors and windows.
All spell “distressed property,” and to some, an opportunity to illegally squat or vandalize a building forsaken by its owners.
Petaluma’s new police chief is hoping to clean up city neighborhoods scarred by these abandoned, run-down houses.
Chief Pat Williams, who took the helm of the department this summer, is proposing an abandoned property registration program similar to one he established in Desert Hot Springs before moving to Petaluma.
He said there are about 335 properties in Petaluma that are in some phase of foreclosure, some of which appear to be forgotten or ignored by the owner. That’s about 1.6 percent of the 20,000 parcels in Petaluma.
Under Williams’ proposal, at the first notice of default, title holders would be required to register a vacant property with the city, pay a $150 fee and agree to keep it in good repair. A notice listing the owner’s contact information would be required so neighbors know who to notify if there are problems.
If the property deteriorated to the point it became a nuisance, the city could fine the owner and put liens on the property. Fines could reach $1,000 in the most egregious cases.
The goal is to assure the properties remain “a safe and a clean environment, so as not to take away from the property value of others and maintain the character and quality of homes that may surround the property in distress,” Williams said.
City leaders seem to be on board with the idea, with Vice Mayor Tiffany Renée wanting to go further and seize abandoned properties through the city’s power of eminent domain.
She said the city could turn the buildings into “transitional housing” for lower-income residents or rentals to ease pressure on those who can’t afford to buy.
Jeff Mayne, who owns two mortgage companies in Petaluma, said the city should slow down and meet with those in the industry to gauge whether such a program is needed.
With foreclosure activity in Sonoma County at a five-year low, he said the city is looking at “the tail end of a problem.”
He said most properties in foreclosure aren’t abandoned and left vacant, or if so, not for long.
“People leave when they’re about to be evicted,” he said. “The issue becomes not so much abandonment, but blight and how we deal with blight.”
More than 10,000 Sonoma County homeowners have lost their properties in foreclosure since 2007, according to DataQuick, a San Diego-based real estate information service. The annual total peaked in 2008 at 2,820 homes and has declined over the past three years to 1,898 in 2011.
Councilman Mike Harris said at first glance, Williams’ proposal seems reasonable. But he questioned if the registration should begin at the first notice of default, since the foreclosure process can be lengthy and complex and residents often live there throughout.
“The biggest challenge becomes when there’s nobody in there and it’s in this betwixt and between stage,” Williams said.
The goal is “voluntary compliance” and keeping on top of blight, he said, not to pressure folks already having financial troubles. Nor is it a revenue-producing scheme for the city, he said.
A proposed ordinance may come to the City Council in a few months.