Aftermath of Foreclosures

Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Scott Hadly
Ventura County Star

Just reduced — three-bedroom, two-bath Oxnard home with unhinged
wrought iron gate, brightly scrawled graffiti, weeds, abandoned car and

The house in South Oxnard is one of a growing number of abandoned
and foreclosed homes in the city that have fallen into disrepair in the
wake of the mortgage meltdown.

After the bank foreclosed on the property, someone pried a back lock
open, went inside and scrawled graffiti over the white living room

"We'll alert the bank or the Realtor," Christina Galindo, an Oxnard
Code Compliance officer, said as she walked along an alley behind the
property, noting the damage. "Vacant properties still have to be

Galindo is one of the city's 13 code enforcement officers who — on
top of their regular duties of citing people for housing code
violations such as overcrowding — now track homes that are in

The idea is to prevent the properties, which often sit empty once
banks take ownership, from falling into disrepair and becoming magnets
for crime.

Local housing codes give city officials broad latitude to compel
owners to maintain their properties, such as issuing liens on homes to
cover the cost of repairs and installing locks. But the sheer volume in
the number of properties now on the list makes it a challenge to stay
on top of the problem.

'Realtors overwhelmed'

Recently introduced state legislation may help by giving officials
the power to levy $1,000-a-day fines to banks and mortgage companies
that fail to maintain properties.

The bill, supported by consumer groups and local governments, was
introduced as a means of tackling the problems associated with having
an estimated 400,000 homes go into foreclosure in the state over the
next two years.

Even with the proposed laws and local codes, it will be a challenge
to keep pace with the growing number of foreclosures in the city.
Galindo already has a caseload of more than 100 homes.

"I can honestly say we're staying on top of it," she said. "The
banks and Realtors have been cooperative, but (the Realtors) are saying
they're overwhelmed."

It hasn't been easy for city officials, also. As more properties
fall into default this year, the effort is likely to be even more

Oxnard is ground zero for foreclosures in Ventura County.

About one-third of the 1,500 foreclosures last year were in Oxnard.
The pace has quickened this year, with about 1,000 Oxnard homeowners in
default on loans and about 432 in foreclosure since Jan. 1.

Since early February, the Oxnard code enforcement office has added
about 640 homes to the list of properties in the first stages of
default, said Dirk Voss, manager of Oxnard Code Compliance.

"We can't solve the financial problems but we can require that homes are maintained and are clean and secure," Voss said.

Each vacant home can put downward pressure on the value of surrounding homes.

Beyond that, vacant homes are a lure for vandals. Overgrown weeds
beget graffiti, broken windows and downed fences, petty crime that can
spill over into a neighborhood.

Renters also have become vulnerable, sometimes getting little notice
that homes they are leasing have been sold. City officials said some
property managers have resorted to cutting off water to push some
renters out, which only compounds health and safety issues. Some
tenants who have nowhere to go stay in the homes, jury-rigging hookups
to utilities and hauling in water.

At one home, Galindo said a family was secretly living inside a
foreclosed property but was found out after neighbors noticed lights
flickering on and off at night and a 5-gallon bucket of water by the

"They were just coming in at night," she said.

These problems are all too familiar to Nancy Pedersen, chairwoman of Oxnard's Cal-Gisler neighborhood council.

"We've seen this before," Pedersen said.

'That's not acceptable'

While the current slew of foreclosures is new, Pedersen said she's
seen downward housing markets in Oxnard before that left for-sale
properties languishing and abandoned. Owners board up the windows and
leave the properties to vandals.

"We had one with boarded-up windows that ended up with graffiti
through the whole house, covering the steps on the front door,"
Pedersen said of a neighborhood home in the mid-1990s.

"It took us six to eight months to get the owners to fix it. That's not acceptable."

Now, she senses it might be worse.

"I don't think they're (the city) keeping up," Pedersen said. "I
think they're just barely treading water and there's a tidal wave

Others are more optimistic.

Joe Avelar, chairman of the city's Inter-Neighborhood Council Forum
and a former Oxnard code enforcement officer, said bank and mortgage
companies are much more responsive when problems are brought to their

In turn, the city's code enforcement officers respond when neighbors complain of problems, Avelar said.

"Oh yeah, we've had a few problem homes in our neighborhood
(Lemonwood), and I get my Code Compliance guy out here right away, and
they got them (the bank) to get the weeds cut," he said.

But Avelar isn't so sure the city is willing to hire the number of Code Compliance officers needed to keep up with the problem.

"They need more people," he said.

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