And according to some at the city of Tracy, these real estate zombies — vacant buildings boarded up to meet city and Department of Housing and Urban Development standards — are draining the life out of the neighborhoods they inhabit.
Tracy Police Department Chief Gary Hampton and code enforcement director Ana Contreras both testified to the City Council along those lines at an Aug. 21 meeting.
Contreras shot me an email this week further explaining the predicament.
“These properties, more often than not, serve as locations for illegal dumping, vagrancy and illegal activity,” Contreras wrote. “They are usually unmaintained, neglected and become blight issues for the community — more specifically, to surrounding neighbors who are faced with the conditions of these properties.”
It’s hard to disagree.
A case in point: In February 2011, one dilapidated and boarded structure partially burned, sending a plume of smoke over the Southside, the result of an apparent squatter’s campout.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze at C and Third streets before it could spread, either to an adjacent field or a neighboring boarded building. But it was a clear reminder that vacant buildings can be a hazard to property and people.
Plus, they’re downright unattractive.
None of the eyesores might be worse than the old Long John Silver’s on Tracy Boulevard just south of Grant Line Road. According to Contreras, it’s been boarded for three years, and the property management company decided to erect the fence around it rather than deal with vagrancy and graffiti complaints.
And, man, is that building a drag.
It’s not that it was closed improperly or that the building’s in especially sad shape — it’s just bad for a city to have a business near a major intersection sporting plywood and chain link that long.
However, the city can’t force a business to move in. And since there is no time limit for how long a building can sit, boarded and empty, the city’s hands are largely tied when it comes to such structures.
These were the prime concerns behind Councilman Robert Rickman’s recent push to have city staff — including Contreras — develop more aggressive procedures to go after owners who let their property languish for lengthy periods of time.
Staff returned Aug. 21 with several ideas, including a 180-day timeline that could force owners to start the process of putting boarded buildings back to use as productive structures, selling them off, or arranging for their demolition.
“The overall goal of establishing a timeframe would be to reduce or eliminate blight and the decades-long problems that boarded buildings present to the community,” Contreras wrote me, explaining the meeting’s discussion.
The council didn’t pass anything that night, but Contreras said just having the timeline conversation lit a fire under some owners who so far have been content to sit on broke-down buildings.
One owner of property with at least one boarded building, Contreras told me, said the discussion prompted his co-owners to start working on plans to move forward in some manner.
When you consider some of these buildings have sat boarded up for more than two decades, according to Contreras, it’s obvious the undermanned code enforcement team needs another tool in its chest.
The timeline originally presented to council, however, might be overly aggressive.
While I applaud the earnest effort to eliminate eyesores, 180 days isn’t as long as it sounds when you’re dealing with the wonderful world of real estate.
It was suggested at the meeting that owners who couldn’t get their real estate gears turning within 180 days could put glass back in the windows instead of selling or renting, at least creating a more inviting public space.
But replacing an empty building’s boarded windows with glass probably won’t accomplish anything — except a bunch of broken windows.
Plus, there are other issues to consider, especially the rights of property owners.
It might be a major drag to look at boarded windows, but is that alone a public hazard?
Perhaps the public safety hazard test should be interpreted more broadly to give code enforcement as much leverage as possible when dealing with recalcitrant owners.
But I’m of the opinion city policy must focus on a building’s hazard level, not its appearance, as that could border too close to an “I know it when I see it” judgment call.
That means, at the very least, any second shot at a boarded building timetable should be truly reasonable and used against the real chronic problem properties.
I’m all in favor of a zombie property hunt in Tracy, but I want to make sure the target is aimed squarely at the long-term undead, not the recently bitten.
• Second Thoughts is a personal opinion column by Editor Jon Mendelson. Share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.