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Mary Otero knocked on the front door of Elsa Bacon’s sagging Craftsman-style home and made a bewildering offer. Her organization, a City Heights non-profit, would pay to give Bacon’s house a facelift: a fresh coat of paint, a repaired fence and new landscaping.
Bacon thought it was a scam. She was well aware of the con artists known to target the poor and elderly in San Diego’s immigrant communities. But Otero told Bacon about the vision that her organization, the City Heights Community Development Corporation, had for the community — a place where poverty would not be an excuse for blight.
So Bacon spoke with her daughter, who did a little research: Otero checked out. Bacon accepted her offer.
Earlier this week, Bacon sat in her living room and gushed over her house’s recent transformation, pride radiating from her crystal blue eyes. Hers is the brightest home on the block now, at the corner of a busy residential intersection adjacent to the City Heights Recreation Center.
It is the newest bright spot in a poor neighborhood beset by eyesores, and a small victory for a group of community volunteers who want to fight the popular image of City Heights as blight-ridden. Using $100,000 in funding — $75,000 is federal grant money — they scour the neighborhood, identify code violations and ask homeowners to fix them, sometimes providing money and workers to help. They report violations to the city only as a last resort.
Bacon, a 74-year-old widow, bought her house six years ago after finally relenting to the progressive arthritis that tormented her each time she climbed the stairs to her second-story Mission Valley condo.
The new house was easy enough to get around, but it “looked terrible.” Its roof was in disrepair, its paint damaged, its lawn weed-infested and patchy.
Already struggling under the weight of her mortgage and “in debt up to here,” she said, raising her index finger to her chin, “I was praying so hard for help to fix it.”
“Then one beautiful day,” she said, her English mellifluous with the accent of her native Cuba, “Mary appeared like a nightingale — like my angel.”
Otero’s initiative is called the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, re-launched after a long hiatus in late 2008 amid resident concerns over larger numbers of residential properties that were falling into disrepair.
Otero and her neighbors noticed that City Heights’ residential streets — slapped harder by foreclosures than most San Diego communities — were becoming increasingly pocked by abandoned houses.
“They were places where drug dealers and prostitutes and gangsters went to do their stuff” under the cover of boarded-up windows, Otero said.
The growing problem only reinforced the stereotype of City Heights as a neglected community. Otero and other residents thought that notion was what exposed their community to threats of eminent domain, which had threatened to take their homes in the past. They wanted to fight that.
With the help of former City Councilwoman Toni Atkins and a federal grant, Otero and a corps of 39 local residents hit the streets on the lookout for homes in violation of code ordinances.
On any given day, they’ll notice potential violations ranging from broken windows to graffiti to illegal dumping in yards and alleyways. They’ll report them to Otero, who will send a letter to property owners notifying them of their potential violation and asking them to fix the problem.
“City Heights,” Otero said, “is a Mecca for code violations.” But most offenders, she said, violate code unknowingly. “They don’t know that they can’t park their cars on the lawn or put up those blue tarps all over their driveways,” she said.
Most homeowners are eager to comply, Otero said. Since formally launching the program more than a year ago, Otero has sent more than 400 letters to properties she and her volunteers have noticed in potential violation. More than 250 cases have been successfully fixed, and only a small percentage have been referred to the city’s code compliance division for enforcement.
The city has been grateful for extra eyes in City Heights, said Mike Richmond, a code compliance official. It is one of the city’s most challenging communities when it comes to enforcing neighborhood code. The city employs 31 code investigators across the city, but most of its cases are complaint-driven. They would never find most of the violations in City Heights.
The program, Otero said, has served more than an aesthetic function. Homeowners have come forward after being approached and revealed underlying reasons for their homes’ deterioration.
In the program’s early months, she said, many of the homes she contacted were in danger of foreclosure, their owners unable to keep up with mortgages, let alone maintenance. A former housing advisor, Otero referred them to counseling services. She learned that not only were some residents illegally storing junk in their yards, but were also living on crumbling physical foundations. Some were exposing themselves to hazardous peeling lead paint.
“The code violations we could see from the outside were just a Pandora’s Box,” she said, “that when you opened it up revealed all these other problems that people in our community face,” like financial illiteracy and health problems made worse by their living conditions.
And like Bacon’s arthritis, which made household tasks like yard upkeep difficult to keep up with. She could not afford a gardener, or a painter to refresh her house’s coat. But her income qualified her for assistance through the federal grant program. The CDC converted her high-maintenance yard by pulling up grass and planting succulents. The old picket fence is now a burst of red.
Otero selected Bacon’s home strategically. She wanted passersby and kids at the park across the street “to realize that they can live in nice communities.”
In the process, Bacon said, her neighbors have approached her with questions about her house’s new look. “They want to do things, too.”
Otero and her volunteers have not only approached homeowners in potential violation. Principals at neighborhood schools, slow to paint over graffiti, have also received friendly letters. One responded that school vacation had accounted for the delay.
“You don’t go on vacation in City Heights,” Otero said. “City Heights is high maintenance.”