The city of Chula Vista has a handle on keeping foreclosed homes and yards spruced up through a model ordinance and program that has been recognized for its innovation.

“We’ve had some properties sit for 18 months with green pools, high weeds and broken windows,” said Doug Leeper, code enforcement officer for the San Diego County city of 228,000 people. “We don’t have the money to manage these banks’ bad assets. So we think they should do it.”

The League of California Cities, at its San Jose convention in mid-September, granted a Helen Putnam Award to Chula Vista for its Residential Abandoned Property Registration Program. Click here for the full list of Putnam awards that went from cities ranging from Lincoln to Burbank.

The Chula Vista program was also cited as a finalist this year in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Innovations in American Government awards.

The 2007 Chula Vista ordinance placed the responsibility for security and maintenance on mortgage holders. Without it, Leeper said, owners of foreclosed houses are often able to evade responsibility through existing loopholes as a mortgage is issued, sold, bundled into a set of investments and resold.

There are more than 8,000 foreclosures in Chula Vista. About a third of the lenders or responsible parties have registered with the city as directed in the city law, Leeper said. The law requires the responsible parties to keep the grass mown and green, free of transients and graffiti, home and yard secured, and post a sign naming the party responsible for maintenance and security (often a property manager).

The program has a carrot-and-stick approach.

The carrot can work like this, Leeper said: a property manager admits negligence with one property but then tells the city it has gone on to upgrade six other properties to the city law’s standards. In that case, the city might waive some civil penalties as the owner documents improvement costs.

The stick is those civil penalties and administrative citations. The law authorizes penalties of up to $1,000 a day to a maximum of $100,000 per property. Typically, Leeper said, the penalty is $500 a day levied on about 500 properties in the last two years. This has resulted in $1.5 million in fines that offset the program’s costs.
There have been no lawsuits against the law, Leeper said. There have been some unsuccessful appeals of administrative citations.

Leeper’s advice to cities contemplating similar programs is to peg the penalties high.

“They speak one language: money,” he said. “Keep the fines high enough.”

The most pushback has been from real estate agents objecting to the requirement for posting the name of the property manager, Leeper said. He added that he has heard from hundreds of cities around the country interested in pursuing a similar program.

The program started two years ago with grant seed money to hire an enforcement officer. Today there are four officers and some support staff, Leeper said.

Leeper even spoke to a Las Vegas conference of the California Mortgage Bankers Association. His message: “Do what you would want done if it was next door to your house.”

Through Helen Putnam Awards, the League of California Cities recognizes cities for innovative initatives. The awards are named for the late Helen Putnam, former president of the league and mayor of Petaluma.

“The awards are sponsored by our League Partner program, which is comprised of more than 100 companies that do business with California cities,” said Eva Spiegel, communications director for the league. “Along with the league, our partners are always looking for ways to foster collaboration and forward thinking solutions to the challenges facing local government.” 

This year’s Putnam award winners by category also include:

  • Health & Wellness Program — Through its Ready, Set … Live Well Community Wellness Initiative, La Mesa has established a network of community partners to perform outreach, provide educational presentations, and demonstrate accessible opportunities that promote physical activity and good nutrition.
  • The Ruth Vreeland Award for Engaging Youth in City Government — La Mirada’s Youth Development Program encourages youth to grow and develop professional skills, while engaging in leadership activities in the community, including Youth Council, Leaders in Training and Youth in Government programs.
  • Public Safety — Lincoln’s Grandma Cop Children trains community volunteers to teach safety lessons to elementary-age children. Topics include personal safety, being at home alone, avoiding gangs, what to do when strangers ask for help and bullying.
  • Community Services & Economic Development — To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Rotary International, Long Beach Rotary raised $100,000 to help design and build a 1.2-acre park in an area of the city that was lacking in open space. Long Beach Rotary holds monthly work parties for maintenance and beautification.
  • Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics, & Community Involvement — Burbank’s Connect with Your Community program built public trust by giving residents input into community project designs and equity issues through the efforts of the Neighborhood Leadership Program.
  • Planning & Environmental Quality — West Covina’s Commercial Center & Sportsplex was built with community support to transform the BKK landfill from a toxic waste site to a landmark for commercial and recreational use, including the creation of more than 1,000 new jobs, improved property values and an estimated $74 million regional benefit to the economy.
  • Housing Programs & Innovations — La Quinta’s Vista Dunes is the nation’s largest multi-family affordable workforce housing project to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification. The development incorporated new green technologies.
  • Public Works, Infrastructure and Transportation — Cupertino built a bicycle footbridge over Mary Avenue, the first cable-stayed bridge to cross an interstate in California. The piece of public art completed two countywide bicycle arteries.
  • The League Partners Award for Excellence in City-Business Relations — Fontana worked with residents and stakeholders to design Fontana Park as a model of community gathering, supplanting a parcel of blighted disuse that had been hurting local home values.

Lance Howland can be reached at