By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa code-enforcement officials are proposing a special City Hall fund to combat the problem of abandoned or foreclosed houses that have become the targets of vandals and squatters.
In at least two cases in April, police and firefighters fought fires that broke out around abandoned houses that neighbors say were occupied by squatters.
Such nuisance properties have been a persistent problem since the collapse of the housing market in 2007 and the rush of foreclosures that followed, city officials say, and inspectors have struggled to get banks or financially-distressed owners to maintain their properties.
“Over the past three or four years it has been regularly coming up,” said Michael Whitaker, the city chief building officer.
The Community Development Department will propose moving about $50,000 from a fund to pay for general code enforcement activity to a new “abatement fund” specifically designed to secure vacant properties, and if necessary seize or demolish them, Director Chuck Regalia said Tuesday.
The problem has gotten somewhat better recently as the housing market has improved and banks have become more adept at dealing with foreclosed properties, officials and real estate brokers say, but the problem remains.
The city has tried several techniques to combat the problem, including asking a court to appoint a caretaker for a rundown home on Belmont Court and tearing down an abandoned row of townhouses on West Third Street.
Those efforts require money and staff, Regalia said, and having a dedicated fund would make it easier to expand the use of these techniques. It would also make it easier for the city to hire a contractor to secure abandoned properties correctly.
For west Santa Rosa resident Carole Stewart, additional money to clean up nuisance properties would be welcome news. Her back yard faces into the Third Street townhouse complex where city officials tore down four abandoned units in 2012. At around the same time, however, a second row of houses was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
“It’s a huge problem; we have squatters and some kids in the neighborhood have thrown rocks at the windows,” she said. “It looks horrible and it is not taken care of at all.”
The four units, which are easily visible from the busy section of Third Street, have plywood over the first-floor windows and back doors, but all four front doors have been left open and the second-story windows are smashed. There is evidence of activity in the houses, including trash, graffiti and other vandalism, despite a city notice on the front, dated April 20, 2011, forbidding anyone to enter the buildings.
More money to clean up the problem “would be fabulous,” Stewart said. “If we could just do something with it, get someone to take ownership.”
Mayor Scott Bartley said the city council will discuss the idea of a new abatement fund as part of the annual budget process, as early as next week. The city’s not in a position to add staff to the problem, he said, but giving the office more money “would probably be well received by the council.”
Bartley said the council might consider adding new money to the effort, but Regalia’s draft proposal calls for reallocating money the city already has. It would come from the “Administrative Hearings Fund,” which gets more than $200,000 every year from property owners who have been fined for building code violations. That money can be used now to pay to secure or demolish buildings, but diverting it to a separate fund would guarantee its availability.
The city would bill owners for such work, Regalia said, so it might be possible to recover some of the Abatement Fund money.
“But sometimes the theory is better in practice,” he said, admitting that it is sometimes difficult to get distressed property owners to pay up.