Friday, September 30, 2011

Oakland plans to stop use of liens for blight

Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oakland -- Oakland plans to stop its controversial practice of placing prospective liens on properties that the city's building inspectors deem as blighted, a decision that comes three months after a civil grand jury criticized the city for its code enforcement practices.

City officials placed liens on properties for tens of thousands of dollars early in the code-enforcement process - before owners had a chance to respond or appeal, instead of as a last resort.

The Alameda County grand jury report in July criticized Oakland's practice of citing owners of homes and other property for blight, finding among other things that the city had treated many people unfairly and in one case illegally confiscated and threw out all the belongings in a home. On Monday night, the city formally responded to the grand jury report, conceding that the city had overstepped its authority.

The liens had frustrated many property owners because the liens encumbered properties and made financing nearly impossible, blocking the ability for many homeowners to fix problems for which they were being cited. Among other things, liens can make it difficult to get a loan on the property. The grand jury had urged the city to stop the practice in 1999.

City Administrator Deanna Santana conceded that prospective liens may have had the wrong effect.

"Prospective liens in high amounts may have had an unintended, intimidating and punitive effect on property owners," Santana wrote in a letter to the grand jury.

Santana also said the city will do a better job in notifying property owners when there is a code violation. Many property owners discovered the city had filed a blight complaint only after a lien was already placed on their homes, according to the grand jury report.

Santana said the city will "improve its outreach," partly through better technology that is expected to be working in 18 months.

Michelle Cassens, a West Oakland property owner who has led the fight against the city's building services department ever since her home was condemned in 2009, said the city's response is inadequate.

"The inability to contact a property owner is more a fact of ignorance than technology," Cassens said.

Another problem found by the grand jury was that the city used excessive fees and fines against property owners.

In one case, the city cited a house for "trash and debris, blight," resulting in fees and fines of $18,000 and the demolition of a recreation area that had been approved more than 20 years earlier. The blight turned out to be children's toys in a yard, according to the grand jury.

Santana said in her letter that the city will produce an evaluation of its fees and compare them with other cities by the end of the year.

E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at

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