When the housing market crashed, wreckage was scattered throughout Chula Vista. In 2007, 12 to 15 homes out of every 1000 went into foreclosure. Many of those thousands of homes that fell vacant as a result of the housing market crisis soon also fell into disrepair. Lawns turned brown, newspapers and leaflets accumulated on the driveway and near the front door. Broken windows could be seen from the street and swimming pools turned into cesspools of algae and debris. The abandoned properties became open invitations to vandals, vagrants, and “urban miners” who would break into the house and strip the property of copper and aluminum piping.
In July 2007, the city council adopted code enforcement manager Doug Leeper’s idea to require banks and owners to register a property as abandoned, holding the banks responsible to maintain the properties and not become a burden on neighborhoods. The ordinance, known as the Residential Abandoned Property Program (RAPP), put into place certain fines for infractions that created blight. A health and safety fine, such as a swimming pool-turned-cesspool, is set at $500 a day and there is a $250-a-day fine for visual blight, such as trash and debris scattered on the property.
During the past 30 months, the city has registered more than 3500 abandoned properties. There have been 2500 complaints and 770 notices of violation issued. In all, the city has fined banks and lenders approximately $1.8 million for these infractions. The city has since waived more than $600,000 of those fines.
The program has since been used as a model in other communities throughout the country that have also reported a high number of foreclosures. In May 2009, Harvard University recognized Chula Vista's abandoned property program as one of the most “innovative government programs in the nation.”
Despite the support from prestigious universities, local banks and real estate professionals have raised some concerns about the ordinance. They feel the fines are too high, and the program enforcement is arbitrary and inconsistent. Real estate professionals believe the ordinance deterred prospective buyers from purchasing the property.
They took those concerns to city hall during a January 26 council meeting. It was then that city councilmembers debated whether they should amend the residential abandoned property program as a way to address the concerns from the area’s real estate industry.
“This opens the banks to huge litigation issues,” said one real estate broker during public comment.
“When we get $1000-a-day fines, it really hurts the banks and the sellers,” said one speaker, a representative from the San Diego Association of Realtors.
“To fine somebody $250 a day because a gate is not locked is not reasonable.”
Councilmembers agreed to tweak the ordinance. They voted in favor of allowing banks and property owners to register abandoned properties online, saving them the $70 registration fee for those properties registered during the previous year. The amendment also gave the city council the authority to reduce the schedule of fines.