Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011-11-27 "Vallejo foreclosures spur surge in squatters" by Irma Widjojo from "Vallejo Times-Herald"
Real estate agent Greg Roherer talks about a large picture window in a home that he is renovating which has been broken several times. Roherer's property is next door to home suspected of housing squatters. Apart from broken windows Roherer has found garbage dumped over his fence and electrical cords running into his home to steal electricity. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)
As a real estate agent, Greg Rohrer bought the foreclosed house in the 300 block of Central Avenue in December to turn it into a rental property. Little did he know, the process was going to be more costly than he ever imagined.
Rohrer's property is next to a vacant home that has now been occupied by squatters.
He said he had found the people stealing electricity and power by running a hose and a cable onto his property. Rohrer also found garbage being dumped in his driveway and yard.
In all, it cost him thousands of dollars more than he expected. It cost him a little less than $2,000 alone to replace numerous broken windows. That doesn't include costs for cleaning up the garbage spewed around the property.
"I can't really say I know who did it," he said. "But this home is a nuisance."
Many neighborhood residents agree with Rohrer.
A mother of a 2-year-old boy said she has heard and seen many loud arguments in front of the vacant property.
"My son has started picking up bad words from them," she said.
The woman requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
The Central Avenue home is only one of 1,325 properties in Vallejo that were in some form of foreclosure as of last week, according to city of Vallejo Code Enforcement division numbers.
"It is a significant problem," Code Enforcement Manager Nimat Shakoor-Grantham said.
The division is responsible for ensuring that the exteriors of these vacant properties meet city code requirements, including being free of junk and overgrown weeds. The city cites owners of properties that fail to do so.
Shakoor-Grantham said she has noticed an increase in complaints about squatters since 2007 and 2008, the beginning of the real estate bust in Vallejo.
Shakoor-Grantham said, "99.9 percent of the time, if the property has been foreclosed, people abandon them."
However, Code Enforcement lacks the power to evict those who move in on abandoned property.
"Only the owners can evict the squatters," she added.
This has been proven difficult, especially if properties are owned by banks, as most are, Shakoor-Grantham said.
"Only once or twice since 2008 has a bank replied to us," Shakoor-Grantham said.
The Central Avenue home was foreclosed on in 2010, and is listed with the city of Vallejo to be owned by Fannie Mae. However, when contacted by the Times-Herald, a Fannie Mae representative said the home had been sold to a "servicer." No further explanation was given after further inquiries.
Code Enforcement has sent Fannie Mae a citation for more than $2,300 in penalties regarding the Central Avenue property, Shakoor-Grantham said. She said she has yet to receive any response from Fannie Mae.
The Vallejo Police Department has also received reports about squatters since the number of foreclosures increased.
"It was something that almost never occurred before, but because we have more vacant properties, it does occur occasionally now," Vallejo police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Bassett said.
However, the police are limited in what they can do when unable to interact with a property's owner.
"We have to determine who the owner is and they need to tell us that the people don't belong there," Bassett said. "It's extremely hard to reach the banks or owner."
With such difficulties in abating the squatting issue, many neighborhoods have taken a proactive stance by forming neighborhood watch groups.
Vallejo has 350 neighborhood watch groups, according to Fighting Back Partnership, which helps form them. Thatis significantly higher than just 10 groups in 2009.
These groups can sue property owners for quality-of-life issues and take them to small claims court, said Bob Sampayan of Fighting Back Partnership. Sampayan, recently elected to the Vallejo City Council, said he has helped neighborhood groups in six cases, five of which were successful.
The civil nuisance abatement process requires the residents of a neighborhood to record all issues caused by squatters, including psychological impacts. Each resident must pay $75 per person to file the paperwork. It takes as long as 30 days to get a court date after the filing date, and the judge has up to 90 days to respond after the hearing, Sampayan said.
"The process does work," he said. "Sadly, we don't have enough city employees to handle problems such as this. Hopefully in the future, we will. Until then, neighbors have to help neighbors."
Sampayan added that he understands the plight homeless people face, especially during winter.
"It's sad because there's a lot of homeless folk out there, and I understand why they (squat) especially in cold and rainy weather like this," he said. "But they are doing a long-term harm to the neighborhood."
Sampayan suggested residents go to a local branch of the bank, provided the owner of the property is a bank, and demand to be connected to the bank's asset protection department to discuss the property.
"Neighbors need to be more proactive," he said.
A resident in the area of the Central Avenue property is doing just that. She and a few other neighbors are forming a neighborhood watch group.
"I feel like the neighborhood watch program has done so much good for this community," the resident said. "We want to clean Vallejo up. It has so much potential, it just needs some love."
For more information about forming a neighborhood watch group, call Sampayan at (707)648-5230 during normal business hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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