Regular commenter Thomas Lord writes in:

The situation with abandoned and neglected properties in Berkeley is apparently a growing problem. In saying so I’m reporting an anecdote, but it is an anecdote from a City employee who knows about such things. I’ll explain:

In earlier comments on Berkeleyside I kvetched a bit about a diseased and fallen tree in a seemingly neglected foreclosure property next to my apartment. The fallen crown of that tree contains much dry wood and seems to me to present a fire hazard, yet nobody is around to step up and remove it. Additionally, parts of the dead tree still stand and threaten to similarly fall on some adjoining fences. Another Berkeleyside reader rightly suggested, in lieu of my frustration getting the City to pay attention to the issue, calling my council-member’s office. This is an update on how that is going.

Here is a shot of the downed part of the tree:

Photo by Thomas Lord
Photo by Thomas Lord

That downed crown is not a huge amount of fuel but it is plenty to sustain a cheery fire that would cause problems on our densely built block. And much of that wood is dry enough to snap in your fingers.

My representative is council-member [Darryl] Moore. My contact there is a staffer named Ryan. My experience with that office has been quite positive. More sluggish than I might have hoped but only by a little (and I’m generally impatient). Sluggish or not, we’re making progress.

Ryan began working the issue by contacting the fire prevention office, the forestry department, and the code enforcement office. The forestry department declined to take action because private property is, they say, outside of their jurisdiction. Fire prevention has yet (as we approach two weeks now) to be heard from. Code enforcement, however, sent out Mr. Gerald Love (whose name I mention with his permission).

Mr. Love had a problem, upon arrival. He was not free to enter private property to inspect this back-yard situation. He called Ryan at council-member Moore’s office, who called me. I went out to greet Mr. Love and invite him onto our apartment property so that he could inspect the situation across the fence. He took photos. He posted a notice on the property  in question. We proceed from there.

Mr. Love remarked — and, I’m loosely paraphrasing from memory so he should not be held responsible if I say this incorrectly — that there is a growing problem in Berkeley of abandoned/neglected properties leading to blight. Prior to his visit he had checked the City’s property records and found them to be not up to date for this property with the fallen tree. Thus, it is unclear to the City to whom they should serve notice. Mr. Love indicated to me that this kind of situation is increasingly common. I have no trouble believing that simply by observing the number of unoccupied and (largely) neglected properties on the square block around my apartment. Analysts of the real-estate market sometimes speculate how large the “shadow market” is — by “shadow market” I mean properties that are both unoccupied and not offered for sale. My impression is that that market is much larger than most imagine.  Honest, free-market real-estate values in Berkeley would probably be considerably lower than even today’s listing and sales prices.

My former neighbors, who formerly held the deed to this property, let me know as they loaded up the moving van that they had escaped actual foreclosure because their bank eventually agreed to accept a deed in lieu of foreclosure deal. In the days following their departure there were two visits by an agent of the bank: a professional “property preservation” person. In the months that have followed, no sign of the return of that property preservation professional have been visible (to me at least) and, well, the downed tree is a good indication he’s not looking after the place.

If my block is not too terribly atypical, and if I understood Mr. Love correctly: Berkeley has a looming “blight crisis” on its hands.

Finally, I should add that it is my understanding that were I to break into the neglected house, take up prominent residence, make improvements (such as removing the dead tree), pay utilities, pay property taxes, and somehow avoid arrest for trespassing for five years — per California laws regarding adverse possession I would own the house in question. It’s quite tempting but for the facts that such action would likely suddenly startle the nominal owners to life and that, frankly, investing five years in owning Berkeley residential real estate is a dubious proposition. Nice place to visit.  Not sure how good I feel about living here.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...