Vacant, Neglected, Destructive: How Richmond’s abandoned homes became fire hazards

When a vacant house caught fire in the Iron Triangle, neighbors grabbed hoses to defend their homes. Video by JoeBill Muñoz.

Elora Henderson and Jesus Galindo sat in the living room of her small Iron Triangle home, unwinding after a long day of work. The two Lincoln Elementary School teachers settled into their after-school routine, sinking into the couch and watching TV with Henderson’s dog, Lorca, at their feet. But something wasn’t quite right that September evening.

The two were eating. Lorca should’ve been begging for scraps, but he was uninterested. Instead, he paced between the living room and the kitchen. Galindo grew concerned, and headed to investigate.

Henderson was still on the couch when Galindo yelled out in panic: “Get out of the house right now!” She jumped to her feet and stared out the window in shock:

The sidewall of the neighboring home was completely engulfed in flames.

Residents on this stretch of Fourth Street say the fire on September 28 was not a surprise: It was inevitable. Squatters lived in the vacant home next door, at 662 Fourth St., for years. According to public records obtained by Richmond Confidential and testimony by neighbors, multiple city agencies had the house on their radars.

In fact, it had caught fire before, and was “red-tagged” as uninhabitable. In addition to a long list of calls for service to the home, its absentee owner boasts a criminal record and more than $150,000 in unpaid property taxes and penalties.

 

Residents claim the city of Richmond was slow to respond to calls to the home, and generally seemed uninterested in dealing with the persistent threat of trespassing individuals, who would party, create massive amounts of trash, and leave behind lit candles.

The story of 662 Fourth St. is a worst-case scenario. It was a blighted home that had all the warning signs of impending disaster. But it sat in a low-income neighborhood in a cash-strapped city that neglected to mitigate the danger.

However, the incident is far from unique. The housing crisis hit Richmond hard, with hundreds of foreclosures. Numerous fires originate at vacant structures, and the Code Enforcement Unit — the department tasked with monitoring vacant homes — acknowledges that this is a major issue.

City officials and department leaders say they’re severely restrained by a lack of financial resources, inadequate staffing, and even state laws, which makes it difficult to deal with vacant and blighted properties.

Critics also point toward the larger systems that allows vacant homes to remain a persistent problem, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“What communities are now dealing with are those antiquated policies, policies that are impeding the city to then rebound and revitalize,” said Danielle Lewinski, vice president with the Center for Community Progress (CCP), a national nonprofit that helps address vacant, abandoned and deteriorated properties. “They’re stymieing or slowing the recovery.”

Looking back on the day of the fire, Galindo expressed frustration at an incident he believes could only happen in a city like Richmond. He can’t help but think something could have been done.

“I kept telling myself, ‘This could have been preventable if the right measures were taken,’” he said.

Deep cuts to oversight

Twice a week, a Richmond abatement division employee gets in their car and heads out into the city. They’re tasked with checking in on each of the vacant homes on the city’s caseload, a list with more than 250 addresses.

The employee is looking for signs of blight that will attract unwanted visitors: broken windows, trash, overgrown weeds. What they catch gets reported to code enforcement, which takes the steps to fix the problem. However, with so many homes being looked after by the department — and more constantly being reported by residents — problems often go unseen, city officials say.

Jim Becker, President and CEO of Richmond Community Foundation (RCF), a nonprofit which currently operates a program to renovate vacant homes, believes that city agencies are doing all they can to address this issue, but simply don’t have the capability to do enough.

“I think people dump on Richmond and create this [problem] because they can get away with it, or they think they can get away with it,” he said.

According to Becker, the longer a vacant home stays in a blighted condition, the higher the risk it could be involved in a fire.

“By year five, we’re dealing with burned out shells of houses,” he said.

Out of 55 homes red tagged by Code Enforcement dating back to 2010, 12 caught fire a total of 17 times while vacant, according to Richmond Fire Department incident reports. These fires resulted in around $2 million in damage.

Including 662 Fourth St., seven of these homes — or about 13% — caught fire after being red tagged and already on the city’s radar.

 

In a city that at one point had more than 3,000 vacant homes, according to the 2010 census, the total number of vacant-home fires during this period is likely higher. For instance, Becker recalls an incident where, just days after a vacant home was acquired by RCF, an RV was driven into the backyard and set ablaze.

According to Tim Higares, director of infrastructure and maintenance operations for the city, when a home is boarded up, it almost immediately becomes a target for squatters. He says there are times when a home is boarded on a Thursday and breached by Monday.

“We spent $12,000 to clean it, secure it, and then over the weekend they broke in and burned it,” he said of a specific incident.

Higares says he’s just as frustrated as Richmond residents. However, he feels his department — which includes code enforcement and abatement — is already stretched to the limit.

“We mitigate [issues] the best we can,” he said. “Do some fall through the cracks, do things happen over the weekend, does my boarding and monitoring guy get called away to do other things for two weeks and then everything falls behind schedule? Do we get calls all day every day from people concerned about properties? Yes. It’s just trying to find the resources to get out there and address it.”

Staff lists show that Richmond currently has a team of 17 employees between code enforcement and abatement, though not all of them work with vacant homes. Those that do also have a long list of other duties, from removing graffiti to handling the city’s massive illegal dumping problem.  

“When I first came here 10 years ago, I had a [code enforcement] staff of 12. I have six now. Abatement team, I had 14. Now, I have six,” Higares said. “So, resources, more resources thrown our way would be great.”

A staff list provided by the city shows that there are currently six code enforcement officers, compared to 10 in 2011. Abatement also lost three maintenance workers over this time period.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay says that staffing and budget has been reduced across the board for city departments during the last eight years. Some have managed to maintain their budgets through grants, but infrastructure and maintenance hasn’t had this luxury.  

“You don’t really get grants from doing code enforcement,” he said. “You know, it’s not something that generates a lot of revenue and there’s just a high need.”

Budget documents indicate that Richmond faced an $11 million deficit this fiscal year. According to these records and consulting firm Public Financial Management, the bulk of the city’s expenses are tied up in pension costs and overtime pay for police and fire employees.

Information made available on RCF’s website shows the city spends approximately $7,000 per vacant home annually in maintenance costs, a total price tag of $1.75 million for 250 homes.

Lewinski, director of Michigan Initiatives with CCP, says the economic impact of vacant homes is much larger than what is seen on paper.

“That vacant property, if the city is not demolishing it, is costing the municipality, and therefore taxpayer, money,” she said. “Both through depressed property values, and as result of the number of police calls that have to go out there, fire calls, the fact that code enforcement is going out to try to track down the owner.”

Richmond has passed legislation directly aimed at addressing its vacant home problem. In 2015, city council voted to issue up to $3 million in bonds to fund RCF’s Richmond Housing Renovation Program, which is aimed at repairing and selling abandoned homes. These bonds were purchased by Mechanics Bank and act like revolving line of credit for the nonprofit.

To date, RCF has brought 17 vacant homes to public auction, a process that involves paying off liens and taxes on the homes. In many cases, the owner of the home is deceased, and RCF spends months and upward of $7,000 to get them through probate court.

The nonprofit hopes to impact 40 homes by 2020, but that leaves hundreds of homes the city has to deal with.

Another major barrier in dealing with vacant homes is California’s property laws. Code enforcement currently has to get a court warrant before it can enter an abandoned property to secure and clean. The owner of a vacant house also has to default on their property taxes for five consecutive years before a city can gain possession of the lot, according to Becker.

“One of the things that’s very clear is that our current property laws, as they’re written, really support the property owner over and above even what’s best for the community,” Becker said.

However, in the case of 662 Fourth St., Contra Costa County Tax Assessor records show delinquent taxes dating back to 2007, meaning it was well past the five-year mark at the time of the September fire.

For many of Richmond’s vacant homes, there’s also very little chance they’ll sell if the county puts them up for public auction. That’s because the outstanding taxes are often greater than the actual value of the home.

Becker believes that unless code enforcement is given the tools to address more vacant homes or legislation is passed at the state level to give cities greater authority, the threat of vacant home fires will continue to persist in Richmond.

“It’s like trying to hold back the tide,” he said. “It just keeps coming, and you can shore up parts of it, but you can’t catch it all.”

 

Ignoring the warning signs

Located in the heart of the Iron Triangle, one of Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods, the 600 block of Fourth Street is a quiet, mostly Latino community with aging homes and vacant lots. The weathered road is sparsely lined with patches of yellowing grass and the occasional tree.

At the block’s center was 662 Fourth St., which during the last decade became a nuisance and public-safety risk — a home with numerous red flags, which city didn’t catch in time.

As the 800-square-foot house sat unoccupied for years, it fell into greater levels of disrepair and attracted a wider variety of people — from homeless passers-through to young adults. According to neighbors, the house also became a drug haven.

Photos of the lot show a blighted house with faded yellow paint stained with brownish-grey blotches of smoke damage. The backyard was at times filled with mounds of trash, piled up as tall as 6 feet: the result of years of unchecked dumping.

The city isn’t sure when the property was last legally occupied, though Ponciano Herrera, a neighbor who has lived two homes down from the lot for 16 years, says the last person to stay in the house was an undocumented immigrant who worked in a restaurant in San Francisco. Court records for a civil suit involving the house show that it had already been boarded up by 2010.

According to fire department records, 662 Fourth St. caught fire for the first time in May 2011. It was again involved in an incident in October 2011, with the cause of the fire determined to be intentional, and vandalism having played a role in the ignition of the flames. An incident report indicates that the house was “vacant and unsecured” at the time of the fire.

Much of the back side of the house was destroyed that year during the fire, which is confirmed by images provided by the city. Higares said his abatement team staff told him the house couldn’t be secured.

“One, it was too fire damaged to be permanently secured,” he said. “Two, there was a safety issue; the porch was extremely compromised. And we make those judgment calls, especially when we’re dealing with burnt properties.”

After the fires, the city issued a red tag for the home in April 2012.

Following this first red tag, code enforcement attempted to send multiple fines and violations to the home’s registered owner, a man named Aafiyah Muhammad. However, the city says all attempts to contact this person were unsuccessful.

Unable to locate the owner, the city was tasked at this point with maintaining the house. Neighbors say the city ignored numerous calls complaining about issues like trash and weeds.

At one point, 18 tons of trash had piled up in the backyard, according to Higares, before it was removed in February 2016, with the help of a front loader construction truck. Neighbors say that because trash was not cleaned up regularly, it became a target for illegal dumpers.

Higares estimates the city cleans up approximately 40 tons of illegally dumped trash a month.

At the time of the fire this past September, neighbors say the grass and weeds in the front lawn had grown as high as the metal fence in front of the house, which stands more than 5 feet tall. They also say it hadn’t been cut by someone from the city for over two years.

When asked about this issue, Higares said he didn’t remember seeing any pictures from his staff showing tall grass.

Records show that the tax assessor’s office informed a code enforcement officer of plans to auction off the lot in 2014. The house was never sold and, in late 2016, the city began to discuss demolishing it.

Code enforcement case details show that a warrant was received on the house in 2016 and a notice was sent to the owner. According to Higares, demolition was again discussed this year, but the process never began.

A list of calls for service obtained from the Richmond Police Department for the three homes involved in the September fire shows at least seven calls regarding the vacant home since 2010. Those calls varied from trespassing to vandalism to disturbances.

According to police spokesman Lt. Felix Tan, the most common complaint received by the department related to vacant homes is trespassing. This is only a misdemeanor, however, and officers have to determine whether it’s appropriate to arrest the individual. More often than not, they release those found to be trespassing with a warning, especially if it’s a homeless individual.

“Our officers are human beings, too, and they will probably say, ‘OK, you know what, just don’t come back here again,’” Tan said. “They won’t leave them in the house. If there’s lit candles and whatnot, then it could elevate to us calling code enforcement.”

Tan said that officers are more likely to make an arrest if trespassing individuals are doing something dangerous, like using flammable materials.

In the case of 662 Fourth St., residents say it was known that people going into the house did pose a risk. Agustin Pimentel, who lives two homes away, said he would often have to go into the vacant house to put out lit candles.  

Since the fire, he has started to check a different newly vacant home, which sits next door. He and his wife, Delia Hernandez, say police have not responded to their calls about trespassers, and that they fear for the safety of their home.

“We’ve already called the police, but they say ‘There’s nothing of value left in there,’” Hernandez said. “I say ‘I know, in the burned down one there’s wasn’t, either, but look what happened.’”

She says squatters will enter the house to sleep and light candles. “So, that’s what we’re afraid of,” Hernandez explained.

“That a fire is going to happen again.”

 

Wall Street’s mess

The problems with 662 Fourth St., like so many other blighted homes in the Bay Area and around the country, started during the subprime mortgage crisis. At the height of this complex and thorny period, almost 3 million homes went into foreclosure, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, and local governments were in no position to handle the onslaught of vacant homes.   

A Google search of the address brings up a picture of the house from 2007. In this image, the home has a clean coat of light blue paint and a front lawn filled with thick, green grass and shrubs. At this time, the home was owned by an individual who had purchased it in 2005 for $360,000.

In 2008, the title to the property was transferred to Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, a California-based outfit, in a trustee’s deed after the individual defaulted on his mortgage. The individual had also accrued more than $30,000 in unpaid property taxes, according to tax assessor records.

The home was subsequently transferred between two obscure Wall Street companies, before Muhammad bought it at auction in July 2010.

By October 2010, Muhammad and his associates had sold 662 Fourth St. and two other Richmond properties to Texas-based Brother’s Realty. However, that company quickly discovered that Muhammad didn’t actually own the two additional homes, and 662 Fourth St. had already been boarded up by the city and declared uninhabitable.

Federal court documents indicate that Muhammad was ordered to pay a $200,000 settlement in January 2013, after being sued by Brother’s Realty.

The documents also reveal that Muhammad was in fact an alias of a man named Jamall Joseph Robinson, a former associate of Your Black Muslim Bakery, the group that orchestrated the 2007 murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey.

At the time, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office had opened an investigation into Robinson, according to the San Jose Mercury News. He was never charged in Contra Costa, but was found guilty in multiple fraud cases in Alameda County. Calls to a phone number listed for Robinson seeking comment were not returned.

Documents from the Contra Costa County Recorder’s Office show that Richmond residents Sergio and Maria Maya paid $6,800 for the home in April 2013, in what they thought was a transaction to purchase it from the city, although Richmond didn’t own the property.

Code enforcement case details for 662 Fourth St. note that, when the officer in charge of the house reached out to the tax assessor in April 2014 to ask about the Maya’s ownership, she was told Muhammad/Robinson still owned the house, and that it was scheduled to be auctioned.

Code enforcement and building inspection continued to send notices, liens and violations to an address listed for Muhammad, unaware that he was not a real person. All of the notices were returned stating there was no Muhammad listed at that address, or that the address didn’t exist.

The heads of multiple city agencies said they did not realize Muhammad was actually the alias for Robinson until told so by Richmond Confidential.

According to Higares, his staff doesn’t have the time to determine if a home owner listed by the tax assessor is in fact fake.

“It’s a very long process, and in the meantime what you have is a piece of property that’s continually being breached,” he said, “that’s catching on fire.”

The cost of negligence

After Galindo screamed “Fire!” and Henderson saw the flames from 662 Fourth St. shooting toward her living room window, she yelled for her roommate Marco Villanueva, another teacher, to get out. She snatched up Lorca, who weighs almost 60 pounds, and ran barefoot into the street.

 

Galindo followed close behind, grabbing his Bible and a watch given to him by his father.

Once outside, the teachers saw the extent of the blaze. 662 Fourth St. was completely engulfed, the flames reaching as high as the power lines overhead. Neighbors two houses down and across the street fought to defend their homes with hoses, while dozens of people stood in an empty lot, calling the fire department or filming the inferno.

Pimentel stood on the back of his roof — out of view of the firefighters on the ground — wetting down the lawn and side of his house. Galindo grabbed a garden hose as well, but it had already started to melt from the heat.

Even if the hose had worked, it was far too late: The flames jumped to the houses on both sides of 662, and all the teachers could do was watch as their home was destroyed.

Their home was at least still standing: the other occupied home’s roof collapsed, and 662 was reduced to nothing more than charcoal.

 

Multiple neighbors recall hearing a loud pop just before smoke starting pouring out of the vacant home. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but residents have no doubt it was started by squatters.

“I remember thinking, ‘There’s people next door again, I should call, I haven’t called in a while,’” Henderson said. “But, I’m like, ‘This happens all the time, they’re never going to do anything about it. I’ll call tomorrow or the next day.’”

Just days after the fire, Henderson and Galindo went to the council meeting to share their story with city officials. Struggling to speak through tears, Henderson begged the council members to do something to prevent another tragedy like hers.

A house was the first major purchase Henderson ever made. The 27-year-old can’t help but smile when thinking about all the things she loved about her home: the roses a neighbor helped take care of, the beautiful kitchen with redwood cabinets, the garden where she was growing squash, basil, peppers and corn.

The house will have to be demolished, but Henderson, who has insurance, is looking to rebuild in the Iron Triangle. She wants to show her students she believes in Richmond.

The reason she and Galindo went to city council wasn’t for herself, but to fight for Richmond residents who don’t have the means to themselves.

“The people who live in the Iron Triangle, by and large, don’t have the resources to fight back with the city,” she said. “Maybe it’s a language barrier, or a lack of education, or a lack of monetary influence to bring a legal case.”

When asked about code enforcement’s budgetary problems and the threat posed by vacant homes, councilmembers Ben Choi and Melvin Willis both said they aren’t experts on these issues. They did express concern over the 662 Fourth St. incident and stated they’d do what they can to support the code enforcement team.

Mayor Tom Butt says he recognizes that vacant homes represent a major issue, but additions to code enforcement would mean diverting funds from other important departments.

“Every year, for the last two or three years at least, [Higares] has said, ‘Look, I don’t have enough people to do the job we need to do,’” he said. “But, you know, that’s true of everybody. It’s just a matter of allocating scarce resources.”

Butt believes that encouraging business development, which would bolster the budget by increasing property and sales tax revenue, is the biggest thing the city can currently do to give code enforcement increased support.

Lewinski says there are two major steps low-income cities can take to help address vacant homes.

First, a city should take a multi-stakeholder approach to managing these homes. This would involve multiple city agencies — such as code enforcement, police, and fire — elected officials, residents, nonprofits and community development corporations coming together as a singular group that shares data and creates strategies.

Second, there needs to be a master plan for how a city will handle its land use in the future. Richmond recently adopted its General Plan 2030, which includes land use and housing. But Lewinski believes plans like these should go a step further. Decisions on what vacant lots to intervene on need to be intra-departmental, with a holistic view on neighborhood impact.

Higares says that while code enforcement currently doesn’t operate on a city-wide plan, the numerous departments involved in managing vacant homes collaborate on a daily basis. Moving forward, he also hopes to acquire more vacant homes through receivership, a legal process where the title to an abandoned property is temporarily taken from a noncompliant owner.

Richmond’s elected officials have not indicated that specific action toward addressing code enforcement and vacant homes is planned for the near future.

While the city’s path to overcoming this challenge is uncertain, Galindo is committed to advocating for the residents of the Iron Triangle.

“When you feel like the people who were supposed to be there for you are not, or you feel like you’ve been abandoned, I think it can be really easy to just give up and be like ‘this isn’t the community for me,” he said. “But I know it is. I’m just going to dig deeper, I’m going to keep fighting.”

JoeBill Muñoz contributed reporting for this story.

7 Comments

  1. Lisa Hire

    Neglected houses are a problem in all Richmond neighborhoods. I have been trying to get the city to handle a property in the historic district of Pt. Richmond for four years.

  2. Susan Davenport

    That’s the RPA for you. They don’t care about these things

  3. Nancy Combs

    Don’t blame the City of Richmond or the RPA. Gayle McLaughlin, as Mayor, found a (brilliant!) solution to abandoned homes using eminent domain to buy foreclosed properties. President Obama, thanks to Wall Street banks, signed a bill making that illegal and tying the City’s hands. Blame the Democrats in Congress, not city officials for the destruction of abandoned properties.

    • Sandra Davenport

      And what happened to the city’s bond rating once McLaughlin’s strategy became public? It sunk lower than ever.
      the more rent control the city has, the worse these conditions will be.

  4. Commenter

    I agree with Lisa. This isn’t just a problem in the Iron Triangle. There was a house up on Barrett near the freeway that had the very same troubles. I’m told the police and city were there multiple times to clear and secure the property but no matter what squatters would continue to gain access. It even caught fire but luckily it was contained to the attic. The trouble with many houses in the Triangle like these ones on 4th Street is that they are very old and do not have adequate clearances like a modern house would, they are too close together and the wood clad construction makes them highly susceptible to fire next door.

  5. ritchie cook

    With the housing shortage there must be a way these homes can be remodeled and used.

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