Green party Mayor supports fining banks that neglect property

By William Harless, Richmond Confidential

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Police Chief Chris Magnus pledged Tuesday to crack down on any banks that are neglecting foreclosed properties in the city. And they said they’ll push harder to enforce a city ordinance that fines banks $1,000 a day for vacant properties with code violations.

At a meeting at the Nevin Community Center, Magnus said empty, foreclosed houses have become havens for crime and that the banks and mortgage companies that own them are deliberately obscuring their ownership, avoiding penalties that way.

“Thirty-two years ago, when I got into policing as a young man, I knew I was going to be dealing with certain members of the community that would be involved in robbing banks — what I did not plan on was having to deal with certain banks that would be robbing members of the community,” Magnus said.

Magnus said it took months to identify the owner of a blighted home in his own neighborhood. The property holder turned out to be Deutsche Bank, and Magnus said the city may now be able to fine the bank under the Foreclosure Fine Ordinance, which the Richmond City Council passed in 2008.

The law brought in about $780,000 for the city last fiscal year, according to Magnus, who said most of this penalty money derived from houses in wealthier neighborhoods of the city. He said banks typically try to conceal their ownership in less-affluent neighborhoods, often by leaving property titles in the foreclosed owners’ names as long as possible.

McLaughlin and City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who also spoke, both said they like the idea of using some of the money to help fund “youth blight brigades,” a possible jobs program for young people that would give them an opportunity to work with city officials on blight identification and clean up.

The mayor also said the money could be used for community land trusts.

“We should be able to seize these homes, and if we can do it by court order, let’s do it,” McLaughlin said of the blighted properties.

Magnus, Beckles and McLaughlin all stressed a correlation between empty buildings and crime.

“There is an absolute connection between blight, between neglected, vacant properties and between crime,” Magnus said. “When we have properties — as many as three, four, ten, fifteen in a block that are blighted, that are foreclosed, that are empty — it sends a message that anything goes.”

North Richmond resident Ina Mason was at the meeting. She said she lives down the street from an empty house and that she worries about the people crossing the railroad tracks to go into it. Mason said she assumes the itinerants are committing illegal activities, and she said fires have been set there.

“You don’t know who these strangers are who are coming in and out and so forth,” she said.

Mason said the house isn’t in foreclosure, but other property owners at the meeting told similar stories about foreclosed homes.

The event was put on by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a community advocacy organization. McLaughlin, Magnus and Beckles all signed a pledge in support of a plan by ACCE to take a harder stance on property owners who let their buildings fall into disrepair.

The plan calls for creating a “bank report card” that would influence the city’s decisions on which banks the local government would do business with, for establishing a blight-related jobs program for young people and for establishing a community land trust.