By Julia Landau
They come in trucks, on foot, in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, slipping into the alleyway running behind 7th St. in the Iron Triangle section of Richmond, and leaving behind bags of garbage, construction debris, and just about anything too big to fit into an average trash can. Nineteen-year-old Gabriela Delfina lives with her family on this block, one of the city’s hotspots for illegal garbage dumping. If Richmond Code Enforcement makes a pick up, residents say, the trash is replaced—sometimes within the hour.
Vacant, unsecured houses transform the blocks into informal garbage drop-off sites for people don’t want to pay to unloading at the city dump. And the illegal dumpers usually get away with it.
Neighbors living along this alley say the fact of garbage staining their view is nothing new, but the housing crisis in the last five years has intensified the blight. Richmond residents and advocates say foreclosed homes make it open season on alleyways like Delfina’s. “There are three abandoned homes connected to this alleyway,” said Delfina, pointing to a small, burned out house—and a sea of garbage up to chest-level that sits in the back driveway.
“If you’d see the tonnage of trash we pick up every day, you’d be amazed,” said Tim Higares, Code Enforcement Manager for the Richmond Police Department.
The city’s Code Enforcement unit is responsible for controlling the nuisance of neighborhood garbage pileup, and other safety and health hazards. But consensus has built that cleaning up the garbage is not enough, because pick-ups can’t keep pace with the frequency of dumping.
“The first time I visited one of these hotspots,” said Higares, who started working on illegal dumping two years ago, “the abatement crew had cleared this street at 8 a.m. and by the time we returned at 10, there were fresh piles of trash.”
John Adams, an organizer with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said foreclosures have played a role in the unsightly decline of some neighborhoods. “The banks have not been good community partners,” said Adams, saying that houses fallen into disrepair, or without proper fencing, are magnets for illegal dumping.
In 2008, the California legislature enacted Senate Bill 1137 as a measure to “address adverse effects of the state’s high foreclosure rate.” Among other things, the bill requires that buyers of vacant, foreclosed homes maintain the exteriors, under penalty of $1,000 a day for up to 30 days.
If the owner of a property doesn’t pay the fine, it becomes a lien attached to the property—and the next buyer has pick up the tab. But the work of keeping the garbage at bay and tracking down violators has overwhelmed city agencies.
Residents, meanwhile, do their best to monitor the alley and shoo away interlopers.
Eunice Booker has lived in the house that borders the alley’s entrance for 20 years. “It’s worse now than it used to be,” said the 74-year-old community activist. “I been telling them just close the alley—they say they need the alley in case the fire department needs it, but it’s just people running from the police cutting through here.”
Residents whose homes adjoin the alley, said Gabriela Delfina, are tired of having to step in trash every time they go out their back doors. So they push the trash that scattered through the alley into a pile, consolidating it into a yard or driveway of an abandoned house.
“I see all kinds of people doing it, people who you wouldn’t think would be dumping,” said Delfina. “I saw an old lady cutting through the alley with a trash bag over her shoulder and—plop—she just dropped it. Didn’t stop.”
Delfina says she plays with her four year-old nephew out front, avoiding whatever garbage might have landed that day.
“We pretty much don’t go to the backyard,” Gabriela says. “The trash, we don’t know what’s in it. It could be chemicals or drugs in there, so it’s pretty much just the dogs back there.”
The Delfinas and their neighbors have gotten used to living with other people’s waste. About three years ago, someone ditched several oilcans in the alley behind the Delfina home. Some of the cans tipped over, spilling barrels of oil into their backyard. A laborious family cleanup effort and an entirely new soil foundation have rid the trace of oil, but Mr. Delfina won’t grow vegetables there like he used to.
Code Enforcement teams can pick up street trash, but to clean out a property, they need the titleholder’s permission or a warrant from the court. The paperwork slows the process down significantly, especially with the housing market in brutal stagnation.
A preventive approach would require community effort, funds, and inter-agency coordination. Currently, Higares says, “the role of abatement crew is reactive; they just pick up,” he said.
That’s why Higares wants to train the abatement crew—a staff that picks up illegal dumping—to help target the violators. “At the moment, the abatement crew is a reactive unit,” said Higares. “What we’re trying to do is train the crews to think about it from an enforcement perspective,” by looking for evidence in the rubble to track down culprits.
The waste he picks up ranges from daily household trash to old furniture and appliances, but the amount of landscaping and construction debris suggests a petty profit scheme—that people hired to clean out houses will skip the fines at the city dump, unload the waste in a residential alley, and pocket the extra money.
Higares wants to start getting aggressive in prosecuting the dumping, partnering with police and city prosecutors to send a strong deterrent. Beyond a fine for illegal dumping, violators are charged with community service. “[Violators] come out with me on trash pick ups,” said Higares, “and if they don’t show, there will be a warrant for arrest, and then they’ll do jail time.”
The city has purchased three specialized surveillance cameras, hoping to install them in hotspots to intimidate dumpers. The portable camera units react to motion with bright lights and loud sounds. Higares thinks the commotions caused by the cameras will act as a deterrent.
The problem, Higares said, is bigger than trash. “If we deal with the blight, it will curtail the other illegal things going on,” Higares said. “We need to find a way to turn these alleys back over to the homeowners.”