Money for eyesores

MANTECA -- The cost to secure and maintain a neglected home here for a year? Nearly $3,000 by the police chief's tally.

This city, hit hard by the housing market downturn and upsurge in foreclosures, passed strict requirements last month to keep up appearances at vacant houses. Owners, some of which are banks, are responsible for neatly boarding up windows to keep out squatters and for maintaining the front yard. Those who don't, risk getting a bill from the city for the work.

Today, Police Chief Charlie Halford is scheduled to ask the City Council to allocate $102,725 for landscaping and boarding up about 35 houses. That amount is what it would cost to fix up and maintain for a year, 5 percent of the estimated 700 residences in the city in some stage of being repossessed.

Modesto passed a similar ordinance last month allowing it to board up vacant homes and charge homeowners. That practice already was in place in Turlock.

Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties led the nation in foreclosures in October. Last month, 419 homes were foreclosed on in Stanislaus County.

"Most of the houses are secure, and we haven't had an issue with them not being secured," Halford said. "But there are some where we have obviously had problems."

He said thieves break windows and steal appliances or set up residence. In one case, intruders managed to restore water service and fill a swimming pool. Dry and unruly lawns irritate neighbors.

The move to put money behind the ordinance pleased Johnnie Keels, 62, who lives near Woodward Park. The newer area is speckled with bank-owned homes and weedy lawns.

"I think that's a great idea," she said Friday while walking at the park. "The house two doors down from me has been vacant for two years. The grass is brown, the windows are dirty, there is (dog) poop in the yard."

Youngsters from nearby Woodward Elementary School ask day care operator Jimmy Young why the lawns look the way they do.

"We'll do our walk, and it's funny," he said. "The kids will ask, 'Why is the grass so ugly.' The grass is dead. It's an eyesore. I think this plan is great, especially because the city wants to thrive and separate itself from any negativity. It wants to attract people to live here."

It took the Police Department months to get the mortgage holder of a house on El Portal Avenue to board it up. Another house, on Grant Avenue, remains unsecured, and police respond to calls there almost daily, Halford said.

"We've been told by the mortgage holder that they are planning on boarding it up, but that hasn't happened yet," he said. "They came out and measured, but if it is not done in the next week, we'll probably do it."

Whether the city ends up recouping the money, he said, the $650 cost of boarding it up would pay for itself in fewer police hours spent there.

His report said the work would be reserved for only "the most egregious offenders."

"This will be helpful for the city, and it is certainly helpful for us as far as getting the houses secured and keeping people out of them," Halford said. "The lawns and landscaping is more of an aesthetic issue, but the better we can keep them looking, the better off we all are."

The City Council meets at 7 p.m. today in council chambers at 1001 W. Center St.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 578-2324.