Public Comment

Failed Leadership and Predatory Fees

By Carol Gesbeck DeWitt
Tuesday May 11, 2010 - 12:50:00 PM

I’ve lived at the same Oakland address for 41 years. I rented for 9 years and have owned my home since 1978. I am a childless widow. I used to like where I lived. Now, I wish I could move my home out of Oakland. I have no desire to move. I just want to remove my life from the reaches of the egregious oppression of Oakland governance. Oakland has some of the highest paid city employees in the entire country. Clearly a city with this much poverty and serious needs cannot afford to compensate Oakland employees and politicians at the level they have managed to achieve and demand and still viably function and maintain needed services. 

My life has been sucked into the vortex of a “through the looking glass rabbit hole” that has put me in financial distress and a nightmarish situation. By the end of February it was obvious that my irregular, 90-foot rear lot line of six to ten foot vegetation had been illegally defoliated with some type of herbicide. This is 15 to 25 feet from my deck, kitchen and breakfast room and I fear health risks from this poisoning. The other three sides of my yard are thriving nicely. The value of the dead vegetation and what it contributed to my property value places this destruction in the category of felony vandalism…except apparently in Oakland. One Oakland Police Officer refused to clarify or even define felony vandalism when asked. The police would not come out and make a report. They did send me forms I have yet to fill out and mail in. Obviously that would merely be an exercise in futility. I have three letters from the owners of the property on the other side of my yard wanting this vegetation removed. We have conflicting interests. They inherited millions of dollars worth of rental property and the family business. Last summer, without bothering to obtain a permit they put an addition on the other side of the small rental cottage they own that shares part of this lot line. Apparently, breaking the law and defoliating my property does not violate their moral compass. (Nor, it seems, fall under the category of even breaking the law in this jurisdiction.) I admit that I have no “proof” that the neighbors destroyed my vegetation, but a preponderance of circumstantial evidence indicates that nobody else had a stake in this matter. Nor, have I heard of any other random backyard defoliations in crime-riddled Oakland. Too bad I didn’t realize that I would need surveillance cameras mounted on my home to catch the neighbors in any acts of vandalism. In March while I was still trying to figure out what had happened, consider my options and form a plan to deal with the disaster I received a “Blight Abatement” notice from the City. “Someone” had anonymously reported the dead vegetation to the City. In April I received an astonishing “Assessment” from the City. Seeing is believing: 

1 Process violation $339 

2 Blight violation investigation $96 

3 Prepare notice to abate $210 

4 Fee charge reinspection $371 

5 Prepare scheduled reinspection $210 

6 Prepare invoice $210 

7 Records management fee $136 

8 Technology enhancement fee $75 

Total Amount due in one month or face further fines and possible foreclosure of my property: $1,647.00!! I can expect probably at least another $600 in assessments as the inspector (who admitted by phone that at her second inspection, which I failed (items 4 & 5) she did not even set foot on my property, but viewed it from the neighbors!) is scheduled to reinspect on May 11. It appears that the criterion for compliance is arbitrary and capricious and subject to the whims of the inspector. One wonders if they are under a behind-closed-doors policy of 

per-inspector-fee-assessment-quotas… I can hardly wait for May 11 and wish a news reporter witness could be present…to me and many others this assessment and the City policies that support it are pernicious, predatory and punitive. Kafkaesque comes to mind. This money that I cannot afford to forfeit to Oakland would have been much better spent on the long list of repair needs my old house has. Paradoxically, the inspector claims, in justifying abatement demands that have nothing to do with the claimed hazard of dead vegetation, (my front door is “delaminating”…hollow core door installed by previous owner…may look unsightly, but the peeling layer of the door is near the bottom, causes no entry access for critters or criminals and is only visible if you open my gate (posted keep out/private property) that the City wants to “insure that homes do not deteriorate!” Apparently, once they have an anonymously reported “just cause” to invade your privacy they can “throw the book at you” for anything they think they can get away with. Fascism comes to mind. As owner and sole occupant I supposedly have more latitude in how I live in my home and use my property. Instead I feel intimidated, bullied, menaced, threatened and under siege. Apparently my home isn’t “pretty” enough to suit City inspectors. My small budget means that peeling trim is not high on my priority list 

I suppose that if I worked for the City or lived in a pricey hills zip code I could afford these bizarre fees and heavy burden. However, like the majority of homeowners in Oakland who are low income, I am struggling just to make ends meet, especially hard on my meager Social Security check and these terrible economic times. I have also had to pay a lot to have this destruction removed and my once lovely, enjoyed and loved yard is ruined. I feel that I have been victimized twice; first by the neighbors and then by the City. 

This horrendous experience has caused me to reevaluate my loyalty to Oakland. This unfortunate cascade of escalating and costly events has completely alienated me. The Community and Economic Development Agency has guaranteed my enmity and turned me from a likely booster to angry adversary. I now shop anywhere but Oakland. I’d rather spend my money in communities that don’t prey on visitors and residents and treat folks with fairness and respect. I will vote against incumbents and I will vote against any and all tax increases. I will speak out in letters to the editor. I also urge anyone thinking of buying a home to be very wary of Oakland. Sooner or later most detached homeowners need to have a City permit for major home projects and the bureaucracy, codes, hassles and fees in Oakland are considerably worse than in other nearby communities. I will definitely procrastinate and be very reluctant to embark on home repair projects that require permits and inspections. It is obvious that current inspection policies, processes and fee structures are counterproductive to Oakland’s claimed and supposed desire to have homes maintained. Blatant revenue generation is the primary goal in Oakland. I am also left wondering if I have been especially targeted because I benefit by Prop 13 tax level. I gratefully appreciate that Prop 13 was intended to protect elderly people like me living on small/fixed incomes from being taxed out of our homes. Too bad it didn’t go far enough to protect folks from predatory city inspections and fee structures. By calling taxes “fees” the city circumvents the 2/3 vote needed to increase taxes. The City can, at will “fee” us into poverty, oblivion and even foreclosure. Financial malfeasance and corruption are not unheard of in Oakland, so it is not necessarily a symptom of paranoia to wonder if a white millionaire property owner has been able to grease some palms to benefit his agenda and get away with behaviors and activities poorer people could not get away with. Mayor Dellums shamefully reneged on his promise to take a 10% pay cut. It does not comfort me to know that the hideous fees being legally extorted from me will help pay the salary of this seemingly incompetent, minimally effective, distracted and part-time-committed Mayor who likes to travel first class on the taxpayers dime. 

I sincerely hope that the serious issues mentioned in this commentary inspire investigative journalist to delve further into my concerns regarding Oakland fee structures, policies and possibly illegal actions. Comparisons with surrounding cities would be nice. Certainly more light needs to be shed on how Oakland generates revenue by squeezing into hardship impoverished and elderly homeowners. I do not in anyway condone or rationalize criminals and their crimes, but I completely understand the palpable and permeating Citywide hopeless frustration and anger of those most disenfranchised in Oakland who lash out at anyone in their paths. C.G. DeWitt