By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Tackling blight in a new way
Ceres code enforcement efforts gain police muscle
Alvarez backyard
Ceres Neighborhood Enhancement Team member Frank Alvarez looks at the squalor in the backyard of a Pine Street residence. As the citys only code enforcement officer in years past, Alvarez said he has been after the owner for five years to clean up the property. The CNET team took care of it in less than a week. Wren and Alvarez tackle the pile in photo below. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The city had been after the occupant at 2143 Pine Street for five years to clean up his yard. Mounds of debris that once littered the yard next door to Country Market were dragged to the curb by members of the city's new Ceres Neighborhood Enhancement Team. In a matter of hours on Thursday morning the city Public Works Department crew came in and hauled off the trash to the dump.

It's just one example of how the city's new code enforcement efforts are working as a branch of the Ceres Police Department.

Ceres Police Department Sgt. Joe Wren, who heads up the unit, said he always seeks cooperation before drastic measures are taken at properties like on Pine Street.

"Most of them we work with," said Sgt. Wren. "We'll bring in trailers and we'll haul this stuff off for people and get them to a base level. So far, knock on wood, we haven't dealt with anybody that's an extremist where they want to keep the 80 pounds of aluminum cans they have and the weird stuff that you see in some houses. Most of them, if we sit down and try to reach an agreement and help them understand what we are trying to accomplish as a city, will usually get onboard. We get that buy-in from them."

The resident on Pine Street never got onboard, he said.

"How many ultimatums do you give somebody before the city has to act on behalf of the neighbors?," asked Wren.

That same property owner, Wren found out last week, is not only on probation but wanted by Modesto Police for a warrant. With the help of probation officers, the house was searched with a warrant and horrible conditions were discovered inside the house.

"To use the word ‘deplorable' is probably not descriptive enough," said Wren. "Cockroaches, food, there's dog feces inside. It's horrible."

Wren left the house boarded up and declared unsafe to inhabit as a health hazard. TID shut off the power and whoever takes possession of the house will be legally required to pull building permits to correct the house's deficiencies.

"I've been dealing with him for at least five years," said Frank Alvarez, who has been a code enforcement officer in Ceres. "He cleans it up and it's back to the same state again over and over and over."

Wren said that multiple signs of neglect are often traced back to drug use or mental illness.

"Most people do not choose to live like this," said Wren. "Even those who are a little bit low on the economic ladder still have pride in their possessions. We're not attacking poor people; we're attacking blight and substandard living conditions."

CNET was created July 13 after it became apparent to the Ceres City Council that Alvarez was not enough to put a dent in blight. Other restructuring occurred, including giving owners of abandoned 72 hours to correct eyesores rather than the weeks of due process previously offered.

"We have more hands on the problem," said Alvarez.

Wren said the concept is that the entire city staff is tackling blight by reporting it and getting involved.

"We can create special teams all day long and throw out statistics that may impress some people but at the end of the day it's what are the tangibles?" said Wren. "If you drive around and see yards cleaned up like this, that's a tangible that people want."

City leaders believe that if neighborhoods are cleaned up, people adopt a different attitude and change the way they act to "have a little more pride in their community," he said.

Being more effective in tackling blight required taking a look at city practices and tweaking them where needed.

The old way of doing things gave a resident 10 days to clean up an eyesore. In the case of Pine Street, Wren and Alvarez spoke to the resident on Monday. The occupant knew what he needed to do but gave it no high priority, said Wren. "He doesn't care."

In some cases the unit moves in to board up vacant houses being used by squatters and dope addicts. In many cases the squatters tear up the houses by striping wires from the walls.

"We don't have these haphazard board-ups," said Wren. "We do a professional job with Troy (Slaybaugh). He does it under a contract with the city."

Costs of clean-up are billed to the owners.

The unit also seeks to follow up on cleaned-up properties to make sure conditions are kept. In the case of the Pine Street owner, Wren said if he doesn't cooperate the city will take legal action to become a receivership and a judge will determine who will rehabilitate the house or it will be sold for cost recovery.

The fight against blight has other tools in its arsenal. The department has connections for volunteer labor to help residents remedy problems.

Wren also promotes citizens use of a free smart phone app called Cartsnap. It allows anyone to photograph an abandon cart, enter store name on the cart, the GPS figures out location and notifies the cart retrievers.