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Shrinking city team combats Modesto's rising tide of foreclosure eyesores

Bert Lippert reaches for a thick, batlike stick in the bed of his city of Modesto truck.

"It's for the dogs," he says as he prepares to check out an abandoned house on Colorado Avenue.

Shattered windows and Norteño gang signs stare out from the home's front porch. Its inside walls look as if they've been smashed with a sledgehammer.

No dogs, but Lippert sees plenty of other signs of how decaying homes continue to drag down Modesto neighborhoods more than two years into the city's foreclosure crisis.

Doing more with less could be a motto for just about any company during this recession. It seems to fit Lippert and a hybrid crew charged with countering blight especially well.

"There's just so much to do," he said. "We went from eight code (enforcement) people to four, but the demand is just as great."

Last month's budget cuts compelled Modesto to slim its numbers of building inspectors and code enforcement officers.

They brought an end to a program that partnered police officers with Lippert on efforts to reduce crime at properties that drew the most complaints from neighbors.

Budget reductions also obliged the city to move a blight-fighting program called the Neighborhood Preservation Unit out of the Parks Department and into a new program under Lippert's leadership.

The changes could make city government more efficient by striking redundancies between the different offices.

One example: In May 2008, Lippert oversaw the demolition of an H Street apartment building with the Police Department. A fresh notice about a graffiti penalty from the Neighborhood Preservation Unit hung from the front door as the walls came crashing down.

Residents might get their calls returned more quickly with the blight programs under one roof, Chief Building Official Will Crew said.

"We're going to get a lot done. It's just going to take awhile to make the adjustment and prioritize."

Driving around Modesto with Lippert shows how daunting the task remains. He can tick off housing sales where owners tried to make the best of dilapidated properties only to give up.

"We could clean up all the couches and the next week, they'd be out again," Lippert said, driving through west Modesto alleys. "It's like nature hates a vacuum," he said.

The open, damaged house on Colorado sold for $245,000 in April 2005 -- double its value in 2001. It's awaiting a foreclosure auction today.

Other properties Lippert watches in the airport neighborhood have been vacant three years or more.

Garbage piles up on the front lawns. Garages burn down.

"It has been obviously getting much worse," Crew said.

Cash to board up homes

City leaders have tried to be creative in looking for ways to minimize the harm a foreclosed home can do its neighborhood.

In October 2007, the city set aside cash to board up homes that had been abandoned by their owners. Modesto became more assertive with an ordinance it passed in May that requires owners of vacant properties to secure them and notify the city about foreclosures.

Police Chief Mike Harden last week said officers with experience in the property unit still would be able to make cases that could lead to the demolition of slums or houses known for drug activity. The officer who had been assigned to work with Lippert was put back on patrol beats because of layoffs in the Police Department.

Lippert's trying to persuade the Justice Department-backed Weed and Seed program to assign alley clean-up duty to inmates at the Stanislaus County Jail. They couldn't enter private property, but they could make a dent in the furniture strewn about in public areas.

Help could come through the federal economic stimulus package. Modesto has $2 million to board up, demolish or improve properties in the airport neighborhood alone. It can use other federal grants to subsidize home loans in the neighborhood.

Walking through an abandoned home on Kerr Avenue in the airport neighborhood conveys a bleaker outlook. Four houses within two blocks are abandoned and in such disrepair that the city's considering tough property liens that would force their next buyers to tear them down or make major improvements.

"We could fix up 20 homes, and there'd be 20 new ones just because of the foreclosure process," Lippert said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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