MANTECA -- The same day Holly Olmstead packed up the house she no longer can afford here, the City Council took up the troublesome question Tuesday of what to do about homes that have been lost to banks and are now deteriorating.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley is ground zero in the foreclosure crisis: San Joaquin County ranks first in the nation, followed by Merced County in second place and Stanislaus County in fourth.
The homes are left vacant by the bank. Their lawns go yellow. Their swimming pools turn dark. And sometimes, vagrants move in. The homes sometimes become not only a blight and drain on home values, but also a danger.
"Whatever we do, we need to do it soon," Councilman Vince Hernandez said during a council discussion about possible elements for a law to upkeep the homes. "The market is not going to change. It's going to be this way for a number of months, and we have to think about the city's law-abiding citizens who still need to feel safe in their neighborhood."
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The council reviewed what might be the most extreme solution offered: fines of as much as $1,000 per day, or as much as $100,000 per house, for failing to maintain landscaping and to shutter a home properly. The council added another element -- allowing police to secure a home. Members directed Police Chief Charles Halford to return within 90 days with a proposed ordinance.
The council appeared lukewarm to a third measure offered by Halford, which would allow the city to re-establish water service to revive a home's landscaping. Halford said one caveat to his proposal was the possibility for a pipe to break inside the home and cause water damage, in which case the city might be held responsible.
Furthermore, the city would be unlikely to recoup costs from financially distressed homeowners or, until the property officially is foreclosed on, the bank. And a property can be in foreclosure a long time, more than enough to dry lawns, said City Attorney John Brinton.
Halford said the city has no estimate on how many houses are in foreclosure or have been foreclosed on during recent months. He estimated that officers have been to 10 such homes where squatters had taken up residence, including one in which the new residents had restored water service and filled the swimming pool.
"One of the challenges for us is identifying whether people in the home really, truly have the permission of the owner to be there, because until the home is foreclosed on, the owner has the right to rent out the home," Halford said. "And the people we find there may or may not have permission to be there."
Sometimes there are signs someone likely forced their way inside, such as one home where officers encountered a jagged, broken window that Halford likened to a guillotine.
Olmstead teared up Tuesday at the possibility of losing her house to the bank. She said she had to stop watering her front lawn when she couldn't pay the bills. She lost her job shortly before escrow closed in May 2005 on a two-story, five bedroom home on Tannehill Drive, a fact she said her lender knew, but still told her she would be able to refinance in two years with money to spare.
"I'm devastated," Olmstead, 44, said. "By the time I tried to refinance, (the lender) said I didn't qualify."
She put the house on the market a year and a half ago, but it didn't sell despite enlisting the help of two real estate companies. She has dropped the price from $650,000 to $515,000. If she doesn't find a buyer by Sunday, the home goes into foreclosure, she said.
She isn't the only one. A few houses down, another dry lawn surrounds a real estate sign advertising the home as a bank foreclosure. A padlock secures the door. The family moved out six or seven months ago, Olmstead said, and that's when it hit her.
The new neighborhood around Woodward Park is speckled with for sale signs and dry lawns.
The story is repeated in other Northern San Joaquin Valley cities.
According to banking data company ForeclosureRadar, 272 homes in Stanislaus County were sold at public auction during July by lenders hoping to collect on them. The figure was 446 in San Joaquin County and 149 in Merced County.
In Turlock, as many as 50 foreclosed houses have been the scene of some kind of nuisance, estimated Bob Boyd, neighborhood services supervisor for the Turlock Police Department.
"As soon as someone sees it's vacant, they'll break a window and move in," Boyd said. "All of a sudden, sheets will go up in the windows, and it becomes a big issue for the neighborhood."
Now, if no one responds to city notices requiring owners to board up and maintain the grass at an abandoned home in the city, the city does the work and charges the owners -- when it can find them.
"It's hard to figure out with a lot of these houses, because we're going through the county to find the owner, and often we find that person used to be the owner but isn't anymore."
City staff are discussing how to toughen rules, said City Manager Tim Kerr.
Because the homes are changing hands, Modesto officials are using title searches to track down lenders and sending them letters. A proposal to toughen city regulations goes to a council committee Sept. 24.
Things improved at first after one of Modesto's letters went to an owner on Radnor Way.
The swimming pool of a vacant home had become so dirty it had turned black, according to 47-year-old Scott Gill, who lives next door. After a July story in The Bee noting the pool's condition, somebody cleaned the pool, but it doesn't seem to have been cleaned since and has turned green, he said. He added that the grass hasn't been watered since the last time it rained.
"The dry grass can spark something up, and it is a concern that should never be," Gill said. "There are so many variables in life, and this one shouldn't happen."
Ripon officials are watching Manteca's debate. Officials plan to discuss the outcome at an upcoming code enforcement meeting, City Attorney Tom Terpstra said.
"We're still in the investigative stage in this. The Manteca ordinance is obviously pretty far-reaching, and I want our committee to understand what Manteca is doing, what other communities are doing and to discuss what is appropriate for Ripon," he said.
Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 599-8760.