Who Can Help Rid Redding Neighborhoods of Pigpen Properties?

I live in the Garden Tract, an older Redding neighborhood not far from downtown. Mostly, I describe it as charming. I love the Garden Tract’s shade trees, and the character of so many adorable homes, most of which were built between the 1930s to 1960s. I love the ability for Garden Tract residents to carry our folding chairs and walk to Sequoia School’s lawns to watch the fireworks every summer.

Also, the Garden Tract is one of Redding’s few neighborhoods where one could survive quite nicely without a car, because it’s within walking distance of Safeway, OSH, the library, Movies 8, the Sundial Bridge, Tiger Field, a few churches, the Saturday farmers market, and a number of  businesses, banks and restaurants.

Of course, being able to walk to those places and feeling safe enough to walk to those places at all hours here in The New Redding is a whole other issue, but that’s another column for another day.

Back to the Garden Tract, where, sadly, there are properties that are far from charming; in fact, they’re pigpens.

I’m lucky because I live on a block where most neighbors take pride in their homes. Conversely, the west end of my street is dotted with some super eyesores. What’s really unfortunate about those eyesores is for every pigpen yard, there’s often a well-kept, tidy yard right next door.

You can practically hear the property values dropping with every new eyesore that pops up on that block.

In fact, when I’m expecting new visitors to my home, I often intentionally give directions that ignore the East Street option, so they’ll avoid seeing some of the most blighted properties.

I thought about walking down the street to photograph some of the best/worst examples for you to see (where I live in the Garden Tract); places where dry weeds stand high, and there’s junk in the yards, or even, in one case, a boat that is periodically parked out front like a nautical lawn ornament. But I didn’t want to risk an encounter with the home’s occupant. I’m not that brave.

Hi, I’m doing a story about blighted properties, and I wanted to include a photo of your home as an example.

So let’s move on to some other neighborhoods, outside of the Garden Tract. These houses have come to my attention because they’re near two of my favorite people, whose names I’ll skip, so they don’t incur the wrath of their pigpen neighbors.

But I will say that one of the people is an Airbnb host who’s suffered some negative reviews from guests, strictly because of the neighborhood’s proliferation of blighted yards, mainly along Loma Street. 

My first example is an attractive stucco house with good bones and character galore. But there’s nothing attractive about the yard around it. The side of the home’s lawn had hacked weeds, lined by overgrown shrubs, while the front was still high with weeds; a landscaping mullet, if you will. Often, there’s broken furniture, or an occasional mattress out front, or a van parked on the lawn.

Example No. 2, below, is one of the most glaring examples of blight I’ve ever seen within the city limits. This particular house shows evidence of no electricity (extension cords snaking from the windows to the next property), no water (the inhabitants carrying buckets of water to the house), and lots of coming and goings by scruffy folks with big backpacks riding too-small bikes at all hours of the day and night. Most neighbors suspect drug activity. blighted 2

Really, this photo doesn’t do the severity of this mess justice. It’s surrounded by enough trash to fill at least one – maybe two – dumpsters.

blight 3

Here’s another view of example No. 2.

My friend who lives near the epic junkyard has created a wonderful home and garden in the same neighborhood as this mess. He finally worked up the courage to report it to the city. I say it took courage because many people are reluctant to report a code violation for fear of retaliation from the violator.

I spoke with Steve Willkomm, who’s only been in Redding as the city’s code enforcement supervisor for two-and-a-half months. I asked him if his department would ever give up the name of someone who’s reported a code violation. His answer  was “never” – unless ordered by a judge for a court case; and that’s a rare scenario.

Willkomm emailed me additional information that helps spell things out with regard to city code enforcement. First, he said that his department’s priorities are life, health and safety. He said that his department has received 595 complaints in 2015. As of  August, he’s received 351 complaints for 2016.

To answer the question of what constitutes blight and code violations, and who are the responsible parties to abate the mess, Willkomm provided these guidelines:

  • All property owners and occupants are both concurrently responsible for property maintenance, building, and zoning compliance.  Cut, trim and maintain landscaping.  Remove junk, trash, debris from property.
  • All current and prospective property owners should check building permits to make sure their property structures are covered with a valid building permit.
  • All property owners, business owners and persons conducting business activity (including posting signage) in any property in the City of Redding should check with the Planning Division prior to signing leases or otherwise allowing or starting activity.
  • All business operators need to make sure they have a business license and post it in public view.
  • On residential property, refrain from storing unused items outdoors, except for outdoor patio/bbq furniture.
  • No wrecked, dismantled or inoperable vehicles may be stored on private property, except in a fully enclosed garage.
  • No recreational vehicles may be stored in the front yard setback of the property (typically 15 feet from the front property line).

That list covers my concerns in the Garden Tract, as well as the two example properties I featured earlier. In a perfect world, the concerned/offended neighbor could approach the blighted-property neighbor and the two could have a friendly chat about it. That conversation would result in the offender offering profuse apologies, hopping to it and whipping that property into place. In my perfect world, that’s how it would work, and perhaps, sometimes it does.

But more often, chronic pigpen people need some professional, official intervention before they will remove the blight. The incentives for cleaning up the blighted properties range from a letter and visit from someone in a city vehicle, to thousands of dollars in fines, and even criminal prosecution.

Even so, at some point, it bears defining the word “blight” since one person’s blight is another person’s drought-tolerant landscape. Willkomm said the criteria is personal.

“It’s anything that is offensive to another person’s senses,” he said. “Anything that detracts from any decent neighborhood.”

He said that that could include overgrown lawns and vegetation, or a property that becomes an attractive nuisance for transients and squatters looking for a place to break in and crash. It could also be people using motor homes beyond vacation vehicles, into the realm of 24/7 residences, parked in driveways, which is a code violation.

When I told Willkomm the location of the junked-up house in example No. 2, he said his department was well aware of it, and was on it. He described the place as a “mess” – and said that if he lived near that house, he’d complain, too.

I’m happy to report that my friend who reported the house to the city has noticed what he calls some positive movement that gives him hope. He’s seen a city vehicle there, and a PG&E worker, and a woman who arrived with a clipboard and a camera, snapping photos.

Willkomm said there are numerous ways to register a complaint:

1. Come to city hall and file a complaint in person at 777 Cypress Avenue, First Floor, Redding, CA 96001.

2. Call Redding’s code enforcement division and leave a message at 245-7110.

3. Write a letter that contains the specifics of your complaint, including your name, and the blighted property’s address, to Redding Code Enforcement Division, City of Redding, P. O. Box 496071, Redding, CA 96049-6071.

4. Send an email to the code enforcement division to  bldgmail@cityofredding.org

Meanwhile, even though Willkomn, with more than 20 years of code-enforcement experience, has seen the worst of the absolute worst blight and code violations, he remains optimistic.

“Most people want to do the right thing,” he said.

Even so, Willkomm’s poised to deal with those who seem oblivious to the concept of doing the right thing. That’s why, despite the fact that Willkomm, a Southern California transplant whose Redding code-enforcement staff can be counted on two fingers, and despite a backlog of code violation complaints in a city with 90,000 citizens; despite all that, Willkomm is emphatic about encouraging people to report blight and code violations.

And he’s the first to admit that there’s no question about the object of his loyalty.

“I work for the person who cares about the community,” he said.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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