By Callie Shanafelt
Omar El-Baroudi, a 42-year-old Egyptian immigrant, bought his first house in West Oakland on On April Fools Day of 2008. He planned to remodel and repair the damage done by squatters living in the previously bank-owned property. The 100-year-old, two-bedroom house was the middle of three unoccupied homes on Magnolia Street.
During better economic times, El-Baroudi worked as a project supervisor remodeling houses in Piedmont. Now he works as a handyman and hoped to do most of the renovation on his house himself. He got the squatters to leave, moved in and started cleaning up.
That’s when he got his first notice from the city about thousands of dollars in fines and fees leveled against his property for violating the blight ordinance.
Oakland’s foreclosure rate is more than twice the national average. Nearly 4,000 houses in the city are in some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. Code Enforcement Officers from the City of Oakland are tasked with making sure that abandoned homes aren’t bringing down property values of other houses in the area or presenting a public safety hazard.
But a recent grand jury report found that Code Enforcement Officers are making the cleanup of these properties difficult or impossible for Oakland property owners. The City has been collecting excessive fines, placing inappropriate liens on people’s houses, and overseeing a dysfunctional appeals process, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury says.
In some cases this led to people losing their homes or life savings.
“These were all empty,” El-Baroudi said of the houses that bordered his new home. “I cleaned the fronts of all of them, and I met everybody, and they were like ‘this is so great.’ And now I’m renting a house down the street. Everything else is fixed and this one is still the same.”
El-Baroudi’s experience is representative of others who filed complaints with the grand jury. He learned there were liens on his property from blight complaints against the previous owner. Usually, a lien means that if the property is sold, the city gets paid before the homeowner gets a check. But the liens against El-Baroudi’s property didn’t show up when he was buying his house – they just carried over against him.
“Blight is unquestionably a huge problem down here,” said El-Baroudi. “But they pushed the landlord out before me. They created this blight.”
No matter what he did to improve his property, he said, his inspector just kept adding liens and charging him fines.
There are currently more than $14.66 million in outstanding code enforcement charges, according to a recent report made to city council. Of the overall outstanding charges, $3.36 million is from liens in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Prospective liens were plaguing a lot of Oakland residents, Michelle Cassens realized when she was looking through Alameda County public records. She noticed that Oakland had issued hundreds of liens that year, while no other cities in Alameda County had issued any.
Cassens has had her own problems with code inspectors. She and her husband bought their West Oakland 1888 Victorian Duplex in March 2008. About a year later a code enforcement officer showed up at their door.
Cassens says he demanded that she return her former tenant’s damage deposit or else he would create a problem for her.
“I refused to give the deposit back and he did create a problem for me,” said Cassens.
The inspector filed a claim against Cassens alleging that she built the apartment without the proper permits. But Cassens didn’t build the apartment.
“We provided public records from the county and the city proving that the unit had been in existence since as far back as 1906,” Cassens said. “In spite of all that, he and his superiors pursued very aggressively.”
Eventually Cassens received notices that her home had been condemned and had a demolition order against it.
Cassens thought her experience represented a larger institutional problem within the department. She started her own audit, looking through various public records requests in August of 2009. She audited hundreds of liens, many of which were equivalent to the value of the homes.
Oakland is the only city in Alameda County issuing liens. Other cities, such as San Francisco and San Jose, don’t use the practice at all.
Every time a lien was filed, a homeowner was charged $964.
For El-Baroudi, the fines piled up quickly into the tens of thousands of dollars. His building inspector filed liens against him, claiming his windows were the wrong size and that his railing and vinyl siding weren’t permitted.
None of these complaints had merit, El-Baroudi said, but his inspector insisted he come in to file a six-month compliance plan in which he agreed to fix the problems or face further fines. A compliance plan is a written list of fees related to work that needs to be done, the city charges $400-$1500 to file one.
He applied for building permits, but it took six months for them to come through, and by then his compliance plan had expired. He poured a new foundation and did some of the work outlined by the engineer he had to hire, but he ran out of money.
The city, he said, was making it impossible for him to fix his house.
But then the grand jury report came out, and El-Baroudi and his neighbor were on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle as examples of the problems with CEDA. More than 20 people showed up to testify at the first City Council hearing on the issue.
Councilwoman Jane Brunner says that was when she realized how many people were affected.
“All these people came who had had all these issues with blight and had nobody to work with,” Brunner said, “even some houses had been demolished so it was pretty serious and pretty intense.”
At the next City Council meeting, Brunner made a motion to solve some of the problems outlined in the grand jury report. One was to eliminate the use of prospective liens until a new policy about their use could be created.
CEDA’s Deputy Director of Building Services, Ray Derania told the City Council that the department was already trying to reform its program and services.
Brunner says the council is asking for investigations into the allegations against individual inspectors. They will have to be briefed on those issues in a closed session due to the private nature of personnel issues.
Brunner’s motion also creates a new independent appeals process. In the past, property owners had to appeal through CEDA.
Brunner’s motion calls for an investigation of all bulldozed homes in the past five years. The Council hasn’t decided if anyone will be compensated for their losses, she added.
On November 29, CEDA and the City Administrator’s office reported back to the Council subcommittee dealing with this issue.
“I think we are absolutely moving too slow,” Brunner told city staff. “I had higher expectations of these being implemented versus coming back and asking us permission because I think that’s a way of slowing things down.”
The city has yet to convene a task force to address the issue, hold a hearing on demolitions or create an independent appeals process. They plan to present a comprehensive plan to City Council in March.
All complaints against Cassens’ property have been lifted. “At this point I’m totally hopeful,” Cassens said.
She continues to volunteer to help other Oakland property owners navigate CEDA’s bureaucracy.
El-Baroudi applied for a home improvement loan two years ago. But because of the liens on his property he couldn’t get approved. Once the city lifted the liens his loan went through.
“They said I could get my old permits back cause they had expired. So on the one hand I should be really excited but for whatever reason I’m just really tired right now,” El-Baroudi said.
“But I’m gonna get excited because I do want to live here,” he added. “You know, I put these roses in three years ago. They miss me.”