Police Chief to Implement Ordinance for Vacant Houses

With an ordinance approved last month and readings slated for the next two City Council meetings, San Marino Police Chief John Incontro said he feels the groundwork for handling the city’s growing number of vacant homes is set.
Barring any future changes to the ordinance’s language, Incontro’s police department will now shoulder the task of identifying vacant homes (by the ordinance’s definition, those unoccupied for 60 or more days in a year) and registering them as such. The hope is that the information involved will help officers in responses to crimes proliferated by the existence of unoccupied homes in neighborhoods.
“It’s a public safety issue rather than a zoning issue,” Incontro emphasized in a phone interview last week. “Those are things that won’t belong in this ordinance. [Zoning] is a whole other conversation.”
Incontro has spent the better part of the year crafting this ordinance, which came at the request of first-year City Councilman Steve Talt. A lot of that involved simply reaching out to other communities within the state and nationwide to see how they addressed the issue. About halfway through the year, Incontro said his department began tabulating homes found to fall within the “vacant” parameters.
Those results came as a bit of a surprise, Incontro said.
“We’ve found that a number of homes — around 10% — fall within that definition,” he said. “That’s quite a large number.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 4,477 homes within San Marino city limits, of which 147 were listed as vacant. That amounted to 3.28% of them being unoccupied. Interim City Manager Cindy Collins said there are now around 4,500 homes, which means the 10% estimate amounts to about 450 homes inside the city being unoccupied despite being owned.
Median listing prices for San Marino homes fall anywhere between $1.5 million and $5.2 million, according to the San Francisco-based real estate information company Trulia.
“A lot of them, they’re either investments or vacation properties,” Incontro said, adding that those owners were based stateside and overseas.
The issue with vacant homes, Incontro explained, is that residential burglars often see obviously unoccupied houses as easy targets and could be drawn to neighboring properties, occupied or not.
“It attracts burglars,” he said. “They may go from a vacant home to an occupied one. We don’t want someone to become a victim because of a vacant home nearby.”
Officers also have trouble reaching the owners of unoccupied properties in the event of any emergency, including such instances as water springing a leak. Incontro said there were a handful of homes this year broken into that left officers unable to reach the property owners.
There also have been isolated incidents involving property squatters in the past, Incontro said.
“It can just become sort of a nuisance in that way,” Collins said, when first responders and city workers can’t reach the homeowner. “It takes a lot of time for our city workers. Our staff takes on that responsibility to secure it, whether it’s waiting around or what have you. This will help in expediting that process.”
The new ordinance calls for officers to investigate reports of vacant properties for the purpose of registering them with the department (it was specific that officers would not look for these properties, but rather respond directly to resident reports). Those homes will be sent inquiry letters by certified mail.
“This way, we’ll know they received it, and we know someone is living there and then they’ll have to respond to the letter,” Incontro said.
A second letter would be sent if there is no response to the first one and, at that point, an officer would likely be sent to physically investigate the property. If the owner still hasn’t responded within 60 days, Incontro said fines would likely come into play.
There is an annual $50 fee for those who register their homes as vacant, although the ordinance waives that fee if a working security system is shown to be at the property. Registration provides the police department with a local contact person in the event of any emergencies at the property.
Even as Incontro read the language of the ordinance at the City Council meeting in November, a handful of residents were adamant to air grievances about such homes in their neighborhoods, including properties that had become unkempt.
“Homes are not being cared for,” Incontro said. “They’re not being kept up. One house in particular, we’ve responded twice for a burglar alarm and no one lives there. There’s nothing in there.”
Collins said from a code enforcement point of view, the registration information will be invaluable. Homes are still required to meet code even if they’re unoccupied most of the year.
“If they don’t [meet code], we’ll have a way to reach the homeowner about that,” she said.
Incontro told residents at the meeting that he and his officers would work with them to identify these homes and reach out to their owners. The chief said he also speaks on the topic at public groups such as parent teacher associations.
“So far it’s been supportive,” Incontro said on public opinion. “We wanted to make sure that’s what the results were when we did it.”
The ordinance goes into effect after its second reading in January, although Incontro said he would probably wait a month or two to allow residents time to familiarize themselves with the ordinance before beginning to enforce it.

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