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City Council approves ordinance to hold banks responsible for blighted homes in default process

on May 16, 2012

The city of Oakland has a program that charges fines for banks that fail to maintain blighted homes that have been foreclosed upon that the bank now owns. On Tuesday night, the city council voted unanimously to expand those controls to include homes going through the default process.

The new ordinance was necessary to address residential properties stuck in a “no man’s land” —the period of time after a homeowner receives a notice of default but before the bank has moved in to foreclose—said the legislation’s author, Councilmember Jane Brunner (District 1).

Brunner said the city’s initial program, which starting in 2010 forced banks to register any foreclosed properties or incur a $5,000 fine, has helped hold banks accountable for maintaining blighted properties. But homes that have been abandoned after a foreclosure, especially in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, have become eyesores and crime magnets that bring down the rest of the neighborhood, according to the city staff report presented at the meeting.

Brunner said taking care of those properties should be the responsibility of the bank once it’s clear the tenant has vacated. Brunner said that process could take “weeks, months, years” for the bank to move in and take ownership of the property.

“We know that in a huge amount of properties, they’re not only blighted, with grass and roofs caving in, but many in poor neighborhoods are boarded up,” Brunner said. “So this is critical.”

The ordinance was vocally supported by each councilmember, as well as by the large turnout of members of the public who showed up to weigh in on the issue. Doug Bloch, who lives on East 7th Street, said there had been two vacant houses across the street from him for 15 years. Both became crime magnets, he said, and his neighbor on the other side of the street is now going through foreclosure as well. “As a resident of Oakland, I’m up here to implore you to pass this ordinance,” Bloch said. “It’s about quality of life.”

Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6) called for the council to “be bold” and do “more to hold banks accountable.” Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) agreed, saying “neighborhoods are suffering, and we’ve tried many ways to send a message to the bank.”

“I think [the banks] have had plenty of time and we should enact this policy to actually make our city better and protect the rights of our citizens,” De La Fuente said.

Paul Junge, the public policy director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, raised concerns about the ordinance from banks that are members of the chamber, as well as about the “no man’s land” time period in between a foreclosure and a default. “The questions around who makes a determination of vacancy, and who makes a determination of an abandonment, and who ultimately makes a determination that an action should take place, those are going to be the critical questions,” Junge said. “We hope, and our bank members have said, if that determination can be made by the city, a lot of the problems of remedying blight addressed by this ordinance we should be able to do.”

Since Tuesday night was the first reading of the ordinance, it will go back before the council in June for final passage.

Earlier during the Tuesday meeting, the council chambers were packed with supporters of Alan Blueford, a Skyline High School senior shot to death by Oakland Police on May 5, the first officer-involved fatal shooting in the city this year. According to police, Blueford pointed a gun at an officer. Every seat in the council chambers was filled during the open forum portion of the meeting, when Blueford’s grieving parents and family members emotionally addressed the council. Many in the crowd were holding yellow signs that read “Justice for Alan Blueford.”

Blueford’s mother, Jeralynn Blueford, said that after she received a call from her son’s friend that Alan had been shot, she went downtown to the police department. She said family members, with tears streaming down their faces, were told by officers to wait, and spent two hours waiting in the department lobby without anyone telling them what happened to her son.

“We sat in the lobby of the Oakland Police Department for two hours without a glass of water, without a tissue to dry our eyes, anything,” Jeralynn Blueford said, as the crowd in the council chambers began angrily murmuring and booing.

Brooks said the way the Blueford family was treated the night their son was killed “clearly would not fit under any protocol.” She then asked if Chief Howard Jordan was present at the council meeting—he wasn’t—and asked for further information on the department’s policy of how family members should be treated when there is a homicide.

“I’m wondering where we are in respect to that, given what we heard here tonight,” Brooks said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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