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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

161 Gambier - when neighbors are forced to take matters into their own hands

There's been a lot of discussion on the Portola Yahoo Group the past couple of weeks about 161 Gambier St. It is an address which, through two owners, has remained a blight on the neighborhood for, according to some who've lived on the block for some time, thirty years.  While technically outside of District 10, I'm pretty certain we'd all be able to find a house like this somewhere in our district, and this neighborhood's fight to abate one in theirs is inspiration to us all to try to do the same.

161 Gambier St
Due in part to the efforts of about 20 neighbors writing a letter and intervention from the Mayor's Office liaison, this issue went before the Building Inspection Commission (BIC) last year. There was a one-year abatement order issued; the property owner had until Dec. 16 to make significant upgrades to the property. January 11th was the first BIC Litigation Hearing since Dec 16 (they had to wait for the abatement period to end before they could make a decision).  The matter was referred to the City Attorney's office, as the BIC was able to determine that the owner has no funds for improvements.

Jana Clark in the City Attorney's office told one of the neighbors leading this effort that first they'll inform the property owner that the matter has been referred to their office, and was told that that's often enough to get the owner to improve the property or sell. If not, the City Attorney will sue the owner. Clark said that in her year in this position she's never had a case go to court, as it's resolved before that. The one big complicating factor is if the owner is incompetent.  This isn't going to be a fast process, but we're thinking more like 2 years than 20...which is an improvement over 30 years of neglect.

Apparently, the owner has turned down suggestions for help from Habitat for Humanity or any other agency.  Neighbors just want him to sell it, get what money out of it that he can, and let someone buy it who's going to be a good neighbor, either through tearing it down and putting up something nice, or by renovating it.

Although most of the neighbors in the Yahoo group cheered Lisa Campbell, who's led the effort to get the house cleaned up, one reader just didn't seem to understand the importance of, and legality of the city becoming involved in telling a homeowner they cannot allow their home to become a blight.  After referring to everyone as "busybodies" for getting involved in their neighborhood, and without any apparent knowledge of the long history of neglect at this house, the neighbor went ballistic on others whom she called, "folks like you that drag our lovely, diverse, urban neighborhood further and further toward the kind of elitist, narrow-minded suburbia atmosphere that I feared when I moved here."  After a great many respectful disagreements of her views in subsequent emails by others to the group, "spyderchyld" wrote in again to apologize, sort of, saying,

I have, however, seen the house in question, and remain convinced that it is not anyone's place to decide what a homeowner should do with his or her property but that homeowner. I can't get behind what looks a lot like bullying him into conformity. If there have actually been vagrants inhabiting the house, that's one thing. But worrying about what MIGHT happen to a house that's already been empty for 30 years doesn't appear to me to be a justification for actions that will most likely deprive someone of their property (so that some of you may feel more comfortable.)
I'm not sure why it is that some people feel that living freely means not having to consider the impact that you may be having on others.  The owner of 161 Gambier, and 'spyderchyld', apparently, are not good neighbor types.  They don't seem to realize that life in a city means close cohabitation, and respecting one another enough to keep ones property free of rats and blight is part of that.  We don't live in a war zone, so burned-out or dilapidated houses get fixed in our city.  If the owner cannot do it, then it is up to the city to relieve the owner of that responsibility and for someone else who can to take it on.  We're not just talking about a bad paint job here.  This is a house that encourages vermin - rodent and human - decreases neighboring property values (in an already depressed market), and depresses those who live nearby who have to look at it every day.

Kudos to Lisa Campbell and all those who are working to help keep our city livable!  And to others who disagree with Ms Campbell's tenacity and her right to live in a respectful neighborhood, get a clue!

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