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Op-Ed submitted by Ryan Griffith, Attorney & Receiver at the Bay Area Receivership Group
Almost every city has properties that are abandoned, vacant, fire-damaged, or otherwise dilapidated. These properties can blight neighborhoods for years endangering communities and driving down property values while also harming neighborhood morale. The community looks to the city to address the issue, but help may not come unprompted. Unfortunately, many citizens are unfamiliar with government departments and may assume the city will just figure it out.
Perhaps citizens should expect more from their government. Hopefully, one day the government will run without any flaws, defects or other deficiencies. Unfortunately, in 2021, while city governments do a great deal, like every other company, individual and organization, city governments have imperfections, which need improvement.
As it relates to nuisance properties, the problem requires exploration and explanation before a resolution can be reached. For now, let us assume we are a neighbor next to a nuisance property that has been burned down for months. At this property transients dump trash and occasionally spend the night while doing drugs and engaging in dangerous behavior. The burned-down property becomes a daily eyesore. The transients, debris and unsanitary conditions then start endangering your community. This is obviously a problem, but who do you call?
Usually, the property is vacant, so one does not think to call the police. The property has been fire damaged, but no active fire is there, so the fire department is incorrect as well. Perhaps the building department can assist. Yes, the building department can inspect and red-tag the building. However, other than adding a red sign to the building, which will likely become litter in a few days, the red tag does little to scare off transients that do not actually live there. In fact, the red sign alerts transients that nobody is responsible for the property, which attracts more danger.
If the police, fire, and building departments cannot fix the property, who can? The answer may surprise you. The city attorney can seek judicial relief by using records from police, fire and building departments. One of the most effective remedies a city attorney’s office has in its arsenal for nuisances is Health and Safety Receiverships. Of course, other actions such as Drug Abatement Act lawsuits, Red Light Abatement, Nuisance and Vacant Property Ordinances, Eminent Domain, and a number of other remedies are available to city attorneys as well.
With that introduction, it seems the city attorney can solve the problem through a number of legal paths. However, espousing legal theories about how things can be dealt with and actually doing the legal work are two very different things. While city attorney offices have the ability to handle nuisance properties, that is rarely their primary concern. City attorney offices handle labor negotiations with police unions, fire department unions, defend civil lawsuits against the city, draft city legislation, and handle numerous other legal issues. One of the keys to running a city attorney’s office successfully is prioritizing and the nuisance property that has sat vacant for three years, will probably not become a top priority until tragedy strikes. This is what happened with the Ghostship Fire, which resulted in thirty-six deaths.
However, a few cities, such as Vallejo, decided the “deal with it later” or “lack of resources” arguments were not good enough for their citizens. Therefore, Vallejo created its Neighborhood Law Program (“NLP”) in 2013. The program was built to hire two attorneys right out of law school for two-year terms at a very reasonable salary. The program was short-term and would only be renewed after its initial two-years if it was successful. The Neighborhood Law Program would focus solely on blight issues and be for all intents and purposes, a way to utilize civil litigation to fight crime, blight, and neighborhood nuisances. I and another attorney, now with Burke Williams Sorenson, were hired to create the program right out of law school. As background, the City of Vallejo had just filed municipal bankruptcy and was one of the largest cities to do so. Therefore, the city attorney’s office had little time to focus on neighborhood nuisances or to even guide the new Neighborhood Law Program. However, recent law school grads are young, scrappy, hungry and eager to find ways to build their resume. Therefore, my partner and I went to work and created a program that became extremely effective and is now thriving.
A key remedy utilized by the Neighborhood Law Program was the Health and Safety Receivership. However, the City Attorney and her Assistant City Attorneys had no time to learn and implement receivership programs and lawsuits. The new Neighborhood Law attorneys however, had time to learn and implement new programs, one such program started by drafting a receivership Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”). This led to the discovery of several excellent receivers and receivership litigation was a tremendous success in Solano County. Vallejo has rehabbed over fifty nuisance properties through the receivership process. Furthermore, the NLP program addressed homeless encampments, building code ordinances, fire inspections and an array of other neighborhood nuisances that were neglected by the City. The program was so successful in its first year that my partner and I were named the Solano County Young Lawyers of the Year in 2013.
In addition to being great for neighborhoods, almost every nuisance abatement statute allows cities to recover attorney’s fees and enforcement costs. In receivership, for example, a city is entitled to all its attorney’s fees and enforcement costs. To date, Vallejo has recovered over $1,000,000 through its receivership program alone, which more than covers the cost of the Neighborhood Law Program salaries.
In short, Neighborhood Law Programs are a way to get young lawyers experience to deal with nuisances that senior attorneys do not have time for. Additionally, these programs often prove to be cost-effective methods to address quality of life issues faced by many residents. The Neighborhood Law Programs also help to build trust between the city and its constituents, as well as educate citizens about the different responsibilities and functions of various city departments.
Ryan Griffith has served as in-house counsel for Bay Area Receivership Group assisting cities and counties address blighted properties throughout the areas. Prior to his time with BARG, Ryan attended Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco where he was offered a Faculty Scholarship to attend the school and was named to the Dean’s List every semester. After graduating from law school, Ryan was hired by the City of Vallejo where he worked to develop the Neighborhood Law Program and create solutions to the issues affecting the quality of life in Vallejo. In addition to this, Ryan has worked for several law litigation firms including Silver & Wright, which specialized in municipal code enforcement litigation. Some of his other accolades include being named the Solano County Bar Association Young Lawyer of the Year in 2013, being a member of the Jesse Carter Honor Society at Golden Gate University School of Law, as well as a stint as a professional basketball player in China. Ryan also serves an adjunct professor of law at Golden Gate University, where he teaches Remedies.
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