A recent op ed in the Berkeley Daily Planet recounted how the verdant garden Alfred Crofts and I have tended for a decade at a nearby rental property aroused the ire of a neighbor who reported us for “blight”, resulting in steep fines. Since then, we’ve continued research--talking to other victims of the blight ordinance and pursuing an as yet-incomplete Public Records Act search of our file over Community and Economic Development (CEDA) stonewalling. We found a neighbor who had to spend $10,000 replacing shingles because some were “cracked.”
At the pocketbook level, we’re now out over $1300 in fines and a lien was placed on the property despite the payment. Our appeal dated Dec. 3, reviewed in-house by the CEDA Building Services Dept., was denied without comment or explanation Dec. 9. We were charged an additional $113 for their effort, and expect another charge for the “billing dispute” denial, both of which we were told to file to keep our appeal alive. The only options left to us now are small claims court or other legal action. And under the “two strikes” bite of the blight ordinance, we are vulnerable to the same fees for the next two years!
We believe the blight ordinance, enacted to the rid the City of seemingly intractable and serious blight, has morphed into a funding mechanism for City coffers, aiding and abetting neighbors’ feuds. This was confirmed by City Hall insiders with access to the raw data from the blight complaint files. We learned over half of the complaints are over untidiness and housekeeping issues, like trash. A small percentage involve unregistered secondary units or unpermitted building. (This lack of emphasis on structures may explain the continuing existence even in upscale environs of high-profile, truly blighted commercial and residential properties.) There is no threshold for separating trivial or spiteful complaints from serious ones, nor any tying of zip codes to complaints that might reveal where the City’s resources are spent fighting “blight”, whether in the hills over plants blocking views or in the flats where presumably more blight exists. And, with the second strike, garbage cans left at the curb too long can break your bank account!
Do the math: 40 inspectors, 22,000 blight complaints per year, $1239 for the second strike--quite a revenue stream.
In our case, although neighbors over the years have complemented us on the garden and/or put in similar ones, one who didn’t managed to involve a sidewalk/right of way inspector, Fred Loeser, in Bldg. Services. He worked the system for the neighbor, although anonymous complaints get the same deference. When it turned out the cracked and lifted sidewalk was caused by City-owned street trees (and thus unfixable), the neighbor moved on to complaints about “how it was impossible for me to push my baby stroller down the sidewalk without my baby getting a bunch of leaves in her face” and the garden “continually growing and changing.”
The trigger for the City to act was apparently when he spotted someone defecating in our garden. Rather than tell the person to stop, he e-mailed Loeser. We think rosebushes are useful deterrents for such antisocial behavior, and plants and trees are good not only for global warming but for aesthetic reasons, too. But even gray cement can’t force a malefactor to do his business on a potty. And, mind you, although the relentless neighbor hounded staff, only once some years back did we or the tenants get a note from him. In that case, the plant he objected to was removed.
Political pay back?
The documents we have so far pried lose under the Public Records request reveal how political and high profile our case is. Inspector William Patchen wrote to his supervisor Nov. 18: "The owner has been raising Cain...(and) have taken their case up the chain and I would like to have answers before it blows up." Ray Derania, Building Services administration and the court of last resort according to a Councilperson Brunner aide, wrote an e-mail to Walter Cohen, CEDA head, on Nov. 16: “For the new administration, would you consider turning over a new leaf and just letting us handle stuff? This is routine. If transgressors are turned back to us, it’s surprising how quickly they see-the-light and get with the program (even though it costs them some money sometimes.” Cohen--who you’d think was busy dreaming up stadii and downtown big box shopping malls--wrote back: “Well...if you insist...meddling can be such fun! But OK.”
This is the same Ray Derania who we, along with a loose coalition of neighbors, tangled with over the recent demolition of the Courthouse Athletic Club, along with removal of the mature redwoods. Even though it was clear to everyone the developer owner had no intentions of building the market rate condos originally proposed, the City cooperated with the owner to scrape the site to put the empty (therefore more valuable) lot on the market. Derania was called before the City Council to defend the denial of our tree removal appeal and the City Council voted to refund our appeal fees.
It doesn’t have to be this way: The outrageous fines, fees, and--if unpaid--liens on property shouldn’t be used to generate funds the way street sweeping violations do. (And the City of Albany doesn’t even charge for blocking street sweepers.) According to AuditOaklandCEDA.com, a site created by another blight victim, cities like Detroit have transparent appeal processes and work with citizens to fix blight, with the goal of keeping them in their houses and not forcing them out.
Mayor Quan’s slogan is “changing Oakland block by block.” To correct the blight ordinance, she need look no further than to Richard Cowan, her Chief of Staff. For years, he headed Conciliation Forums, a group composed mostly of volunteers like our longtime neighbor Janet Keita, who mediated disputes between neighbors and groups. The idea was to bring about peaceful resolutions and compromises, not to exploit vendettas for City budgets. We need to get back to that model and maybe Cowan, in the “new administration,” wears another hat and “meddles” in a better way.