Blight bites the dust as Modesto razes houses

A home in the 600 block of Kerr Avenue is destroyed Wednesday morning  April 2, 2008 in Modesto. (Brian Ramsay/The Modesto Bee)
A home in the 600 block of Kerr Avenue is destroyed Wednesday morning April 2, 2008 in Modesto. (Brian Ramsay/The Modesto Bee) Modesto Bee

Two Modesto police officers cut through an overgrown yard littered with tires and assorted junk, approaching a shack abandoned since the property went up in flames a year ago.

A terrier leaps out the door and a man hushes it.

This airport neighborhood house off a Benson Avenue alley isn't as empty as it looks early on a Wednesday.

Officer Amy Bublak and Cpl. David Rhea peek in the building, spotting a haggard couple sitting in a room reeking of animal dander and human waste.

The woman is seven months pregnant. She and her companion are wanted on warrants for sleeping on private property elsewhere in Modesto. Bublak and Rhea arrest them on suspicion of the same offense.

"Do you see how unsafe this is," Bub-lak asks them, standing on a makeshift step pieced together with plywood. "That's the whole point of us going in."

Bublak's beat centers on the city's most problematic properties, ones damaged by squatters and neglected by their owners.

A rise in foreclosures has led to more people using abandoned homes, creating public health risks and trouble for neighbors.

The police's Beat Health Unit, which includes Bublak, is tracking roughly 200 properties, about one in five of which are believed to be abandoned.

The city demolished five of those buildings Tuesday. Four were on a Kerr Avenue property on the opposite side of the alley where Bublak and Rhea found the transient couple. The other was in the 700 block of South Conejo Avenue.

Neighbors were pleased to see the buildings come down.

"Oh, am I glad," said Charles Lamance, 69, a Conejo Avenue resident who lives next to the property. "People have brought junk here. It's a bad scene."

Owners of both properties cooperated with the city's decision to raze the houses, building inspector Bert Lippert said. He said the work cost about $11,000, a charge to be paid by the landowners.

Demolitions, such as the ones Wednesday, happen only a handful of times a year. More often, Lippert said, landowners respond to the city's requests to clean or board their properties or evict troublesome tenants.

The Beat Health Unit — which includes members of the Police and Building departments as well as the city attorney's office — was formed in 2004. It gets involved with a property when criminal activities surface.

Another city team, the Neighborhood Preservation Unit, tries to intervene earlier. It's tracking about 275 foreclosed homes, which it can board up if they start to become problems in neighborhoods. The unit can put liens on properties to recover its expenses.

For the past year, Stanislaus and its neighboring counties consistently led the nation in foreclosures per capita. In February, foreclosure proceedings were started on nearly 1,000 homes in Stanislaus County. Many of those are in Modesto.

When foreclosures happen, families suffer the most, but cities are hurt, too, said acting City Manager Jim Niskanen. The abandoned houses are "vulnerable. They're just left to the negative devices of the community," he said.

The Beat Health and Neighborhood Preservation units track foreclosed homes for signs of damage to a neighborhood.

Lippert, the building inspector on the Beat Health Unit, spotted the Conejo Avenue home in October. A fire burned it that month, making it one of the properties the city could raze. It fell out of repair when its owner died and passed the property on to a Ripon woman whose family reportedly didn't know she inherited the home.

A decomposing body of a dog was in a shopping cart in the back yard, its white skull jutting out from its fur. A bedroom was covered in feces. Its interior was stripped of metal and its floors were littered with broken glass and clothes.

"No one wants to live next to this," said Sgt. Kathleen Blom, the Beat Health Unit's supervisor.

The buildings on the Kerr Avenue lot came under the city's watch in August, when officers arrested a transient heroin user there during an inspection with Lippert.

It typically takes Lippert about 100 days to condemn a property and gain an owner's consent to raze it. That can take much longer if the owner fights the decision, or if the city can't identify the current owner.

Foreclosures can muddy the paper trail when the properties change hands. Lippert is working with a New York bank on the Benson Avenue property where Bublak and Rhea arrested the squatters Wednesday.

Many of the houses considered the worst problems were known to the police and city officials before the real estate market crashed, Chief Building Official Will Crew said. The dramatic rise in foreclosures, he said, "just exacerbates it."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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