County code enforcer Mike Chambless in 2008 shows a house on Line street that had been red tagged and foreclosed on.

As the mortgage foreclosure crisis continues, more and more
Hollister homes are left vacant.
As the mortgage foreclosure crisis continues, more and more Hollister homes are left vacant.

Some of those homes are falling into dangerous levels of disrepair, while others are being broken into for drug use and other criminal activity, Code Enforcement Officer Mike Chambless said.

Mortgage foreclosures rose dramatically in 2007, due in large part to subprime loans that reset to higher interest rates. San Benito County took a hit, too – between July and September, for example, the county saw 193 foreclosure filings, according to Irvine firm RealtyTrac. That’s more than four times the 22 filings during the same period in 2005.

Many of those homes are sitting empty, Chambless noted, and that can create serious problem. It’s too early to have complete numbers, he said. Anecdotally, he estimated that locals used to file one complaint about abandoned homes “every couple of weeks.” Now, he said, he receives at least three complaints every week.

“They’re everywhere,” Chambless said.

Police Chief Jeff Miller agreed that empty homes are a growing public safety issue.

“When you have more of those sites, you have more activity,” he said.

An abandoned house doesn’t necessarily increase crime in the rest of the neighborhood, Miller said, but locals are understandably concerned if criminals frequently break into a neighboring house.

As the problem continues, Miller said he encourages parents to keep track of their children and to warn them away from parties held in vacant buildings.

“I would be worried if my kids were going to one of those abandoned houses,” he said.

Addressing complaints about those homes has become a huge part of Chambless’ job. A message on his office white board reminds him that 2008 should be “The Year of Abandoned Home Abatement.”

“My boss (Development Services Director Bill Avera) and I agreed that’s my priority,” Chambless said.

On Wednesday, he took a Free Lance reporter around Hollister, pointing to a foreclosed home on almost every block. On Mimosa Street, Chambless identified four homes in a row that are all in some state of foreclosure.

Locals appear to have chosen a few of those homes as “party spots,” and police frequently find empty alcohol containers, graffiti and even underwear inside, Chambless said.

In a historic house on Monterey Street, Chambless pointed to branches littering the yard and a nearly-empty pool filled with algae. A “compost pile” of newspapers was recently cleared away from the front of the house, he said.

A big obstacle is that the mortgages are sold from one company to another, Chambless said, and those firms can be based as far away as China. As of Monday, Chambless can find ownership information online. But in the past, he had to look it up at the county recorder’s office.

“This is totally an exaggeration … but it felt like when I get back to my desk (from the recorder’s office), somebody else already owned the place,” Chambless said.

Renee Kunz, president of the San Benito County Association of Realtors, noted that most of the problems occur after a home is foreclosed and before a real estate agent puts it up for sale, which Chambless verified.

“No one looks kindly on that time issue, but banks are being so overwhelmed with those subprime loans,” said Kunz, who is also the local manager of Intero Real Estate Services. “When an agent takes over,” she said, “we want to see properties maintained to those best it can be.”

Kunz added that she believes the market will pick up in 2008, filling vacant houses with homeowners and reducing the problem.

On the other hand, officials have told Chambless that the number of foreclosures won’t drop for years to come. In the meantime, he’s preparing new laws for city council consideration that would make it easier to board up and fix unsafe homes.

“Whether they’re in China, Germany or San Benito Street, (the owners would need) to have somebody available to respond to the house within an hour,” Chambless said. “It gives local enforcement a tool to address the problem of vacant houses, and it puts responsibility for maintenance back on the owner.”

That won’t stop the foreclosures, Chambless acknowledged, but it will make his job easier.

“We’re not trying to make it a crime to have an empty house,” he said. “We’re just trying to address problem houses.”

For more pictures of abandoned homes, visit our

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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