Fixing Blight 

Oakland plans to overhaul its scandal-plagued blight enforcement division, but will the reforms work?

Page 4 of 4

"There are banks and large investment conglomerates that, through foreclosures, through predatory loans, and through sleazy banking practices, have come to acquire thousands of properties in Oakland, which they do not upkeep," Kaplan said at a city council meeting last fall. "They make more profit by not bothering to upkeep those properties."

However, a closer look at the numbers shows that fines won't be that high on banks that foreclose on blighted homes. The proactive inspection plan would intensify code enforcement's current focus on bank-owned buildings by looking at banks one at a time, and asking the banks to account for all foreclosed properties they hold in Oakland. The city's foreclosure registry has pulled in some money to the Development Services Fund already — almost $1.3 million since July 2010. But most of the money came from registration fees, not from blight inspections. Blight violations brought in about $330,000 in collected fees. In contrast, the overtime payments accrued by city employees who maintain the registry came to $256,500.

The biggest obstacle to cracking down on blighted foreclosed properties is that banks are legally required to keep up only a small portion of Oakland's foreclosed properties. About 82 percent of the city's more than 3,300 foreclosed homes are still in the default or auction stages of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac.com, which means the city can't charge the bank fines or cleanup fees.

"There's a pretty significant problem with blight on those properties, and the banks are not taking responsibility," Lin said. "And legally, they don't have to."

Lin proposes that the city council change Oakland law so that Building Services can go after these pre-foreclosed properties, whose owners have often lost interest in caring for them. "The owners live there, but they're just disconnected," Lin said.


In the case of Moore-Williams' neighborhood in West Oakland, it's the involvement of neighbors that has kept abandoned houses from falling into the hands of drug dealers. Moore-Williams gets to know all her neighbors and helps organize a street party for National Night Out every year. If she drives to work, she makes sure to swing past industrial areas of her neighborhood to make sure garbage isn't piling up on the streets.

She's been threatened for getting involved, but says she's not scared. "They put nails in my tires," she said, but "it's just a nail."

Moore-Williams also keeps close tabs on city government. On a recent Saturday, she flipped through her Blackberry messages for alerts from her District 3 council member, Nancy Nadel. Since Nadel has decided not to run for reelection this year, Moore-Williams wants to bring up her concerns over the Building Services reforms to a couple of potential candidates she knows.

If the city can't dedicate as many resources to fielding complaints from her neighborhood, Moore-Williams said she's ready to do even more of the work herself.

"It will really mean we'll have to get in it," she says. "We'll have to clean the streets — be vigilant — so our neighborhood can remain like this."

Not all neighbors will have the time or energy to pitch in. But Moore-Williams — along with all the residents, city staff, and community activists invested in improving Building Services — know it's not for lack of caring. "It's really sad that people think just because folks live in West Oakland, that they don't care about their block or their neighborhood," Moore-Williams said, "because it's just the opposite."

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