By Loretta Kalb
In Sacramento’s Oak Park, where five vacant homes burned in the last four months, resident Sherry Pyatt is among those who keep a close watch on the neighborhood.
“I’m not feeling very safe, not with all these vacant houses around, and the fires,” Pyatt said the other day outside her home on San Diego Way, near two of the five fires.
Abandoned or vacant houses are a problem. They can be targets for vandalism, shooting alleys for drug abusers or retreats for homeless people who light fires to stay warm. Out-of-control blazes are too often the result, officials say.
Worries about empty buildings and what becomes of them have intensified in recent years as neighborhoods cope with a growing volume of foreclosures. Left unaddressed, a vacant property can bring down a street – and hurt a neighborhood.
Now some California cities are moving to curb potential for the blight that often follows neglected properties.
Beginning March 11, an Elk Grove ordinance will require owners of vacant homes to register them with the city when they are empty more than 30 days.
The approach is fashioned after a similar abandoned-property program in Chula Vista, where lenders are identified and held responsible for the conditions of their foreclosed properties.
The city of Sacramento has had a vacant-building ordinance in place since July 2007.
The city tracks complaints about vacant houses and imposes penalties of up to $5,000 a month for each failure to fix a violation.
“We start a case and we monitor them monthly just to make sure they’re being maintained,” said Ron O’Connor, operations manager for the city’s Code Enforcement Department.
Most complaints come from Oak Park and the city’s Del Paso Heights neighborhoods, he said.
When empty houses are burglarized, the city hires contractors to board them up and charges owners for the cost, O’Connor said.
Failures to fix blight can add penalties. So can the city’s cost of monitoring.
On San Diego Way, the front of one boarded-up house was papered with notices of violations attached to month after month of penalties, totaling more than $30,000.
Even those penalties might be waived in cases in which a buyer seeks to make the home livable, O’Connor said.
On the same street, one of Oak Park’s five burned houses was boarded up and secured with locks. That didn’t stop vandals.
The padlocked side gate was forced open and the home’s back door was kicked in and left ajar.
Jose Rodriguez, who lives next door, said his son saw the fire. In the more recent burglary, Rodriquez said, he believes the home’s appliances were stolen.
From his driveway, the smell of the burned house persists.
Yet another home on the block was damaged in October when someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the front window. An arrest was made in that case.
Property owner Mohammed Jalal told The Bee he made repairs quickly, and that a new tenant has moved in.
Still, the neighborhood is much improved compared with the 1990s, Rodriguez said. Someone is always in his home, so he says he sees little cause for worry.
On 17th Avenue, also in Oak Park, an empty house was demolished after a Feb. 7 explosion ripped through the building. The Sacramento Fire Department calls it a case of arson.
Fires aren’t the problem in Elk Grove.
The city has had an ordinance dealing with abandoned properties since 2006. But finding owners of foreclosed homes has been tough.
“The biggest challenge is that enforcement notices (posted on) vacant properties seem to go into a black hole,” said Shane Diller, the city’s community enhancement manager. “They sit piled up somewhere in a financial institution. The registry, hopefully, will fix that.”