Real Estate

Monday, Feb 25 2013 05:01 PM

Supervisors to consider crackdown on vacant homes

BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

The fear that an abandoned home can spread across a neighborhood motivated Supervisor Mike Maggard to call for county staff to create the start of a new ordinance that will get its first, conceptual airing before the Kern County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

For a neighborhood in Oildale, he said, a house left vacant by a foreclosure became a nightmare.

That story is repeated over and over again across the county, county code enforcement leaders say.

"It is a lot more than just, 'There is a house in disrepair,'" Maggard said. "It goes to the fear of the people that live in the neighborhood."

The new ordinance hasn't yet been written. But in concept it could force banks to register their vacant properties, force them to maintain those homes and require them to post contact information where neighbors can see it and call for help.

On Tuesday, during the 9 a.m. session of the board, supervisors will tell Engineering, Survey and Permit Services Department Director Chuck Lackey where they want to set the line.

The question, Lackey said is, whether "we need to develop a real elaborate program that will be an additional cost to pay for or do we utilize existing resources and staff."

His staff has struggled with large numbers of properties that are in limbo and become targets for mischievous youth, squatters and worse.

There are, he said, "a number of vacant properties that have been just destroyed and created a lot of fear for people who live in the neighborhood."

The property in Oildale that triggered Maggard's interest was a "perfect storm" situation, the supervisor said.

People moved into the property while it was in foreclosure, he said, and claimed they had a right to be there.

"They would bring trailers onto the property and would strip them there and leave all the refuse there," Maggard said.

Neighbors saw people moving around the property only at nighttime, rolling shopping carts full of stuff onto the property, he said.

According to a report to the board, which outlines options, the enforcement actions could be as simple as requiring banks, mortgage companies and other entities that own or maintain control of property to register every vacant piece of property on their rolls.

Lackey said code enforcement officers are often stymied in their attempts to deal with problem properties because they can't reach anyone who takes responsibility.

Ultimately that ends up with the county paying to clean up the nuisance. Then, if the property remains vacant, county tax dollars are used to go back and keep weeds down and property boarded up, he said.

The county ultimately has to wait to be paid back.

"We're trying to recover our costs through tax liens" on the property, he said.

Another, tougher route the ordinance could take would be to levy fines and penalties on the property owner or mortgage company directly if the property isn't maintained in safe conditions.

"We should have a policy where, if the county has to clean it up, there needs to be a way for the taxpayers to be paid back," Maggard said.

In other jurisdictions, the report from Lackey states, ordinances require the lenders, and in some cases even the owners of property, to do regular maintenance or face "significant (financial) penalties for violation."

Ultimately, Maggard said, he hopes this is a financial boon to both banks and the neighbors who live near homes that are likely to stay empty for a long time as the housing market rebounds.

"I want this to be a net positive on the values of these properties," Maggard said.

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