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Fixing Blight

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



Anisa Moore-Williams hated to see the cars piling up in the vacant lot across the street from her house. So she called Building Services, the city division that handles blight in Oakland, and made a complaint. She talked several neighbors into complaining, too. "Pretty soon, people could see that, okay, they're picking up cars," Moore-Williams said. It was the first step in a decade-long battle to get the lot cleaned up.

But soon after the cars were gone, the lot's owner drove his rusted Chevy van onto the lot and lived out of it. Then he began pushing shopping carts onto the property; at one point, Moore-Williams counted 28 of them. Next, the neighbor started scavenging garbage cans from foreclosed houses and dragging them to the lot. Moore-Williams said she realized at that time that her neighbor was mentally ill. Neighbors tried to buy the property from him, but he wouldn't sell.

Moore-Williams, an Oakland native who's lived in her West Oakland home for more than twenty years, made it her mission to keep the lot clean. When a new pile of junk appeared on the lot, she and her neighbors would complain to Rich Fielding, an inspector at Building Services. "Rich Fielding would send him a nice little letter, then [the junk] would disappear," Moore-Williams said.

Eventually, only the van sat on the lot, its registration tags pointed away from the street. "It took over a good ten years," Moore-Williams said of her efforts to clean up the lot. "Probably longer."

Moore-Williams has become a neighborhood crusader. She's taken on abandoned, unkempt, and unsafe properties on her block and beyond, and, in the process, she's seen how challenging it can be to maneuver through Oakland's bureaucracy, even on its best days. Moore-Williams said Building Services needed constant prodding from her. She got results, she said, "because they got tired of hearing from me."

That's why she's keen to see what will come of the city's complete redesign of the Building Services division. The program is slated for a total makeover that the city council may begin debating later this month. The changes come in the wake of a scathing report from the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury that found evidence of corruption, excessive fines, and a nearly nonexistent appeals process in the Building Services division. The grand jury members wrote that they were "appalled" by the practices they found.

The extensive review being conducted by the office of Oakland City Administrator Deanna Santana may eventually reshape the division's approach to blight, moving away from a system that relies almost entirely on complaints from people like Moore-Williams — and the use of hefty property fines — toward a more holistic approach to cleaning up neighborhoods.

The proposed reforms have won praise from some critics of Building Services, but it remains to be seen whether they will work. For example, it's extremely uncommon for cities to tackle blight without relying on complaints from residents. Officials from San Jose and San Francisco, two cities that the grand jurors compared to Oakland in their investigation, contend that their code enforcement departments could not function without complaints. There's also the question as to whether the overhauled program, which may move away from costly fines and liens, will become yet another financial drain on the cash-strapped city.

For Oakland residents like Moore-Williams, the stakes are high, and she is eager to see if the revamp of Building Services will allow neighborhood activists to still address blighted properties that attract drug sales and violence.

The definition of blight fills out a lengthy chapter of Oakland's municipal code. It ranges from the simple offense of overgrown plants to an abandoned building that squatters have gutted and set up as a drug house. The longtime goal of Oakland's Building Services division is to deal with all of these kinds of blight, regardless of severity. But this practice has caused bitterness from some property owners who feel they've been charged excessive fines for minor infractions, like leaving their garbage cans in the driveway too long.

It's hard to say exactly when a badly kept property turns from an eyesore to something more troubling. What Moore-Williams knows is that property covered with garbage and graffiti can foster crime. "That starts the illegal activities, like drugs, or prostitution," she said.

Leila Moncharsh, an attorney who has worked with Moore-Williams and other Oakland residents to improve their neighborhoods, agrees that abandoned buildings set the scene for crime. An abandoned property often attracts squatters, who strip copper and other valuable metals from the house, or use the property for drug dealing. And when squatters stay in the house, things get ugly. "The water will get turned off, so the toilets won't work," Moncharsh said. "They start using other ways to get rid of their excrement, like putting it in a bucket in the backyard, or even in the house."

Next, Moncharsh said, "crime goes right up. ... Sites erupt, the drug dealing escalates, and then we end up with a shootout."

Clearly, abandoned buildings aren't the only factors in neighborhood shootings. But in a city that battles drug dealing and gun violence with an increasingly limited police force, cleaning up properties that set the scene for these activities could go a long way toward making the city safer. From Moore-Williams's perspective, the challenge is clear: "How do we get drug dealers to not think this is a place they want to be?"