The effect of blight on some of Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods can be hard to quantify. Vacant, decrepit and boarded-up homes surely depress home values for entire blocks around them. But the loitering, the squatting, and the drug use — it’s harder to put a number on how that affects a neighborhood.
But now the City of Richmond says it has a number: Three-quarters of a million dollars. At least that’s how much money, in unpaid fines, the city is levying against the owners of “nuisance properties” in the form of tax liens. The property tax liens, which will be formally served August 6, are for a wide range of complaints, from having overgrown yards or too much trash piling up around the house to leaving property vacant or damaged.
The liens are meant to serve a dual purpose: To recover city funds spent on sending crews out to do work on blighted homes, and to urge property owners, many of whom are difficult to track down, to take greater responsibility for their lots.
Tim Higares, the head of the police department’s Code Enforcement division, which issues the fines, presented the City Council last week with a six-page list of property owners who will be receiving a tax lien beginning next month. The value of the liens ranges from as low as $250 to as high as $60,000. The council approved the list, allowing the city to more aggressively seek repayment for long-overdue nuisance-property fines.
Higares said most of the unpaid fines are imposed on property owners whose homes are in such bad shape that city workers have had to come out and either work on the house or board it up. Many of the largest fines the city has issued — usually around $30,000 — are the result of $1,000-per-day penalties against homeowners until they fix up their properties. Many of the homes on Higares’ tax-lien list are in the northern tip of the Iron Triangle, bounded by the Richmond Parkway on the west, MacDonald Avenue on the south and the BART tracks to the east.
The largest fines, however, are often directed at homes that have been repossessed by banks, Higares said. Bank-owned homes in foreclosure — a significant percentage of Richmond’s housing stock — represent some of the city’s most damaged and neglected properties.
“The banks are the worst property managers I’ve ever encountered,” Higares said. “All we get from them are excuses. The only time we hear from them is when they have somebody who wants to buy the property, and then they’re surprised they have $30,000 in fines.”
Homes cannot be sold until a property tax lien, or other such fines, have been repaid.
Richmond’s foreclosure ordinance states that all homes, whether bank- or individually-owned, must be maintained and secured. In some cases, the city requests a warrant to enter a vacant home and will replace the locks, board up windows, and clear trash and debris. That bill gets sent to the property owner — often the bank — but according to Higares, is seldom paid back.
Patrick Lynch, the director of Richmond’s Housing and Community Development division, agreed that the banks that own notes on homes in town have been a headache for city staff to deal with.
“The banks have done a tremendous disservice to the local community,” Lynch said. “What do you think [foreclosures] do for the community? Who’s going to pay for the police to go out there, to take off the graffiti, or to board it up? They’ve made a strategic decision not to incur those costs. They push it on our side, to the city, and it means less money for positive activities. And it disproportionately affects cities like Richmond.”
There are currently 1,426 homes in Richmond in foreclosure or in default, according to RealtyTrac.org, a popular Web site that tracks foreclosure listings — roughly 20 percent of the city’s total homes. Another 604 are up for auction by banks, the final stage of foreclosure.
The Code Enforcement division fields between 15 and 20 calls per day complaining about blighted homes, Higares said. His office also has 37 officers who patrol the city looking out for illegal dumping, abandoned cars, and other forms of blight.
“People complain to us about their health and their safety,” Higares said. “There could be high and dry weeds around the house they’re afraid are going to ignite, or in some of these vacant, abandoned properties, there could be squatters, pimps, prostitutes, you name it. So our job is to eliminate blight, and stabilize communities. But because of the economy, it’s becoming quite a challenging task.”
Lynch pointed out that foreclosed homes work against the city in several ways: In addition to becoming magnets for squatting and drug use, abandoned homes don’t provide the city with tax revenue, and bring down the value of homes nearby, which ultimately means less tax money from those homes, too. Throw in the money it costs the city to maintain or patrol around abandoned properties, and you have a serious drain on the city’s resources.
“Sometimes we feel we’re just … like we’re just trying to plug the hole in the dam,” Lynch said of dealing with Richmond’s foreclosures. “There’s all this water pushing up behind you, and you’re trying to plug it up with your finger. But at a certain point, you just run out of fingers.”