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‘Taking the city back, one block at a time’

on November 17, 2009

An hour and a half after city groups and residents starting cleaning streets in the Iron Triangle on a recent Saturday morning, they had filled the equivalent of more than 125 carloads of trash.

“We saw everybody taking out stuff, so we decided to take out stuff too,” said Isabel Saavedra, 30, whose mother lives on Third Street.

Graciela Valenzuela, 14, a Richmond High School freshman, was one of several residents in four square blocks of the Iron Triangle who spent the day raking, washing and scrubbing the inside and outside of their homes as part of the One Block at a Time event to clean neglected and rundown areas.

“I think it’s cool because we can throw out things we don’t need anymore,” said Valenzuela, who said she has lived in the same house for 10 years.

The girl’s family threw out a sewing machine, old furniture and a washing machine among other things.

“Now that we have the opportunity, they’re throwing everything away,” she said as she watched her stepdad carry loads of trash and recyclables to the dumpsters at the end of her street.

The idea of One Block at a Time is to give residents a jumpstart on cleaning their neighborhood, said Tim Higares, a manager in the Richmond Police Department’s Code Enforcement Unit.

“We knock door to door. We send flyers out in Spanish and English. And we explain to them what we’re going to do,” Higares said. “We didn’t want to come in here and make it an enforcement day.”

A part of the effort included clearing vacant properties.

Code Enforcement Officer Teresa Tingle estimated at least 30 percent of the 120 properties in that day’s target area were vacant, most in some stage of foreclosure. Teams of people cleared out and boarded up a few of those houses.

“We walk into a lot of those properties and they have condoms and feces and bio hazards,” Higares said. “You never know what you’re going to walk into.”

Gang members, homeless people and other squatters often stay in the vacant homes, sometimes using a bathtub or a room as a toilet because the houses usually don’t have running water. A woman was removed from a foreclosed house at 680 Fourth St. on that Saturday morning.

“We’re not in the business of putting people who are hard on their luck out on the street,” Higares said. But, “we can’t leave it like this.”

The city’s foreclosure ordinance says properties must be maintained and secured. When a code enforcement officer finds a vacant home, like the one at 680 Fourth St., that officer sends a notice to the bank that owns the property. The bank then has 10 to 30 days to comply, usually to show up and secure the property.

“The problem is the banks aren’t showing up,” Higares said.

When a bank doesn’t secure a home, the city has to pay for the heavy duty window and door boarding, locks, abatement crews, permits, court costs and dumping fees associated with clearing and securing the property. That costs from $3,000 to $7,000 per property, Higares said. Victor Mejia with the Code Enforcement Unit spent four hours clearing garbage-filled weeds and blackberry bushes 9 feet tall and too thick to see through from one small property that has been vacant for a decade.

“What you see us doing here, that’s the bank’s job,” Higares said. “All the wood, all the time, all the tools; that’s tax payers’ money basically.”

David Rogowski, code enforcement officer in the Iron Triangle, said he’s been trying since June or July to contact Deutsche Bank, which owns the foreclosed house on Fourth Street. He said the bank owes more than $30,000 for not responding.

When asked why the bank has not responded, a Deutsche Bank representative told Richmond Confidential that the bank is the trustee, and the mortgage company is responsible.

Rogowski said his job is challenging and sometimes dangerous, but also interesting and satisfying, especially on days like Saturday. He said he thought almost all the residents who were home helped with the event. Children as young as 3 years old carried waste to the dumpsters.

“This is an education process. This is changing culture,” Rogowski said.

One Block at a Time has been happening in a different Richmond neighborhood each quarter for about two years. On Saturday, the focus was Second, Third and Fourth streets between Pennsylvania and Ripley avenues. Rogowski said he hopes to target Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets next quarter. Participants included the Richmond Police Department and its Explorer Program, the Building Department, Public Works, City Manager’s Office, Parks and Recreation, RichmondWORKS and Sims Metal Management, which recycles metal and gives the money earned back to the community.

Residents said they were happy to see the cleanup effort.

“Look at my face. I’m smiling,” said Jose Rios, who said he has lived on Fourth Street for almost nine years.

A man trying to sell or rent property in the Iron Triangle said he was also thankful.

“We were going to clean up anyway,” Gabriel Scurlock said. “I save money by not having to take things to the dump and pay.”

Scurlock said he planned to clean alleys in the neighborhood in addition to the properties he owns.

“The cleaner it is, the more quality residents it attracts,” he said. “This is the future of Richmond.”

The code enforcement officer in the Iron Triangle agreed.

“This is all that it’s about,” Rogowski said. “Taking the city back one block at a time.”

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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