Monday, June 30, 2008

Oakland Abandoned Auto Detail Rocks

The Oakland Abandoned Auto Detail has been doing an outstanding job at tagging and towing inoperable and abandoned vehicles on public and private property. Inoperable and abandoned vehicles are one of the most significant contributors to blight in North Oakland and South Berkeley. In a 2-3 block area centering around Alcatraz Avenue approximately 15 inoperable and abandoned vehicles were recently identified and reported to the Abandoned Auto Detail. Within days, the Oakland Police had tagged the vehicles. Many were voluntarily removed by the property owners while others were towed by the Oakland Police.

For more information on the Oakland Abandoned Auto Detail please see the following:

To report abandoned vehicles parked on the street for over 72 hours, call the Abandoned Auto Detail at 510-777-8622 or 510-777-5838 for vehicles on private property. Fax information to 510-777-8880. Or email the location, description, and license number of the vehicle, if known, to

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The "Broken Window" Theory

This explanation of the "broken window" theory was written by Henry G. Cisneros when he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It was published in a series of essays titled "Defensible Space: Deterring Crime and Building Community" - January 1995.

James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the `broken windows' thesis to explain the signaling function of neighborhood characteristics. This thesis suggests that the following sequence of events can be expected in deteriorating neighborhoods. Evidence of decay (accumulated trash, broken windows, deteriorated building exteriors) remains in the neighborhood for a reasonably long period of time. People who live and work in the area feel more vulnerable and begin to withdraw. They become less willing to intervene to maintain public order (for example, to attempt to break up groups of rowdy teens loitering on street corners) or to address physical signs of deterioration.

Sensing this, teens and other possible offenders become bolder and intensify their harassment and vandalism. Residents become yet more fearful and withdraw further from community involvement and upkeep. This atmosphere then attracts offenders from outside the area, who sense that it has become a vulnerable and less risky site for crime.
The "broken window" theory suggests that neighborhood order strategies such as those listed below help to deter and reduce crime.

  • Quick replacement of broken windows

  • Prompt removal of abandoned vehicles

  • Fast clean up of illegally dumped items, litter and spilled garbage

  • Quick paint out of graffiti

  • Finding (or building) better places for teens to gather than street corners

  • Fresh paint on buildings

  • Clean sidewalks and street gutters

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

This tale of woe was recently recounted to me by a frustrated resident that lives along the Berkeley Oakland border. In trying to address blight issues in his neighborhood related to dilapidated houses, a concerned citizen checked the City of Berkeley web page to find out the process for reporting blight and what the City does to investigate and resolve blight issues. Unfortunately, the City web page was a bit confusing. There was no apparent link for blight. There were links for reporting communicable diseases, for West Nile Virus, tobacco prevention, and tuberculosis control, among others. But no blight.

Digging a little deeper, our concerned citizen clicked on the A-Z index and up popped a myriad of links. Checking under B he found birth and death certificates, birth control, and block party permits, but no blight. Apparently, Berkeley has a blight ordinance, but no blight. Digging yet a littler deeper, our concerned citizen found the online request for service form. While the online request form is normally used to report roof rats, Norway rats, mice, trash/debris/garbage, overgrowth, sewage spills, abandoned vehicles, noise violations, and smoking violations, it unfortunately was not available and so directed our concerned citizen to call the Environmental Health Division. By the way who can tell the difference between a roof rat and a Norway rat?

Upon reaching a staff person in the Environmental Health Division, our concerned citizen was promptly told that he really needed Housing Code Enforcement. Upon explaining the issues to Housing Code Enforcement, he was promptly told he needed Code Enforcement for blight issues and was transferred yet again to the Supervising Code Enforcement Officer. From there, things went downhill fast, with the Supervising Code Enforcement Officer eventually telling our concerned citizen that the he was irritating. Can you believe that? A concerned citizen wants to report blight in his community only to be told by a manager in Berkeley City Government that he is irritating. Needless to say, our concerned citizen, himself a veteran of local and state government bureaucracies elevated the matter to the Deputy City Manager and the City Manager to resolve the personnel matter, but more importantly to address the blight issues. Apparently, the Deputy City Manager has assigned another City staff person to work with our concerned citizen to investigate and hopefully resolve the blight issues.

Nevertheless, this begs the question: why does the City of Berkeley make it so difficult to report and resolve blight issues? While some elements of its web page make it seem as if the City really cares about blight and wants to partner with the police and residents to address this critical issue, the practical reality is that there are really very few staffers willing to take ownership of blight issues, pursue all legal avenues, and push hard to get results. We know that Code Enforcement Officers have a tough job. Not unlike police, they see the worst of the worst day in and day out. But their workload is complaint driven and the customer is the public. We can only hope that those who are burned out, disgruntled or otherwise unhappy working on blight issues move on.

Surprisingly, Oakland has almost a one stop shop through the Oakland Public Works call center where you can report any number of blight issues through a central call number or report in on the web. It appears to me that Oakland is serious about blight, Berkeley not so much...

What is urban blight?


The word blight typically refers to plants that are withered or rotting due to disease. Urban relates to or refers to a city or characteristic of city life. When the two terms are put together, urban blight refers to the deterioration and decay of buildings and older areas of large cities, due to neglect, crime, or lack of economic support.

Urban blight is a typical sight in most US cities, and in many cities throughout the world. As a city gets older, some buildings or properties are not maintained and become run-down, abandoned or condemned. This can also be referred to as urban decay. People who cannot afford to live elsewhere must sometimes live in properties that are without appropriate maintenance, such as housing projects, which may also be called slums or ghettos. The look and condition of these properties, as well as their use can be said to be urban blight.

Urban blight is not simply a cosmetic issue. As homes or properties become condemned and decay they can affect other well-maintained properties surrounding them. Just as blight in plants can affect other healthy plants, urban blight in cities can spread to or affect other properties. They bring down surrounding property values, may become havens for illegal activity like drug dealing, and are more prone to fires, which can spread to other buildings.

Urban blight can also refer to certain unattractive elements in a city not related to actual buildings. For example, in Philadelphia, the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) was formed in 1990 to bring down 60 illegal billboards erected throughout the city. They have also fought to keep more billboards from being erected so that the city remains beautiful. To some, like the organizers of SCRUB, urban blight refers to typically urban features that tend to "uglify" a city.

Some smaller cities resist the building of skyscrapers and place limits on the height of buildings because they feel tall buildings are a sign of urban blight. Efforts may also be made in towns and cities to revitalize neighborhoods where there are a number of decaying properties. Such properties may be razed or rebuilt, and parks or new businesses may be established in order to make a neighborhood more attractive.

Other cities may also resist growth past a certain point since they feel this will lead to urban blight. They may restrict the building of new homes on an annual basis, and also place terms on where homes can be built. The goal may be to keep some spaces, like mountain ridges, open and beautiful, as these were key attractions of a city or town to begin with. Some consider former open spaces and mountains now peppered with cookie cutter homes as an example of urban blight.

In any city of a certain age and size, there is likely to be at least some urban blight. It may merely be that growth in the city has reduced its cosmetic value. Alternately, urban blight may reduce property values or pose hazards to law-abiding residents. Many cities attempt to address urban blight, but often funding is limited for such projects. Frequently, it takes a significant effort by citizens and dedicated politicians to raise funds and public interest in eliminating urban blight.

Model Garage in Berkeley Isn't So Model

The Model Garage at 2920 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley (510-540-5899) isn't so model when it comes to blight. For some time now, the front of the garage has been covered in graffiti. When the manager was notified about the problem and asked to clean up the graffiti, he demurred, stating that whenever he removes it, the graffiti simply reappears. When gently advised that there are anti-graffiti coatings that can be applied once the graffiti is removed and that additional landscaping can be placed that drapes over the wall, the manager scoffed and said that once he gets some money maybe he will deal with the graffiti. Is the Model Garage on such a shoe-string budget that it cannot provide for adequate maintenance of its facility? Is this really any way to run a business? Not only does leaving the graffiti in place attract more graffiti, but it gives the impression of a neglected storefront. In addition to the graffiti, litter is often found at the front of the store. What happened to the good old days when shopkeepers were proud to maintain their storefronts and would routinely sweep the sidewalk and gutter and keep the area neat and clean? So much for a Model Garage. This matter has been referred to the City of Berkeley for resolution.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Berkeley and Oakland Differ Greatly in Blight Ordinances

The City of Oakland and Berkeley differ greatly in their blight ordinances. The City of Oakland has a far more comprehensive blight ordinance. Importantly, it applies to all properties in Oakland. Berkeley, on the other hand, has a major exclusion related to single family dwellings that are owner occupied. In other words, the Berkeley anti-blight ordinance does not apply to residential dwellings that are occupied by the property owner. This is a major hole in the blight ordinance as some of the most blighted properties are owner occupied single family dwellings. This is a serious problem for South Berkeley. Because the blight ordinance does not apply to such homes, the owners are free to establish and maintain blight regardless of the effect on adjacent neighbors. Not only do these properties cause a significant degradation of neighborhoods, but they materially affect property values.

We Fight Blight

After years of seeing the negative effects of blight on North Oakland and South Berkeley, I thought I would fight back with the We Fight Blight Blog. The purpose of this blog is quite simple and includes the following:

  • Provide like-minded residents, neighbors, businesses and others with easy access to the tools and information needed to fight blight in North Oakland and South Berkeley;
  • Provide a better understanding of the anti-blight ordinances in Berkeley and Oakland;
  • Provide tips for navigating the bureaucracies and the police departments of Berkeley and Oakland to get a better more coordinated response to on-going blight problems;
  • Provide the contact information to those in the local government and the police departments that can help you fight blight;
  • Provide a Hall of Shame of the worst blight offenders; and
  • Provide a forum for you to share your concerns, sagas and successes about fighting blight in South Berkeley and North Oakland.