Jose Rodriguez, a stocky auto mechanic from Jalisco, Mexico, has been squatting in a vacant home in Richmond's Iron Triangle for the past four months. "I like this property. I've already spent $5,000 repairing it," Rodriguez told Richmond police officers last week, as they were kicking him out in order to demolish the site. "I didn't do anything wrong."
Rodriguez had transformed the roughly 1,000-square-foot property on First Street. On the front portion of it, he built an outdoor kitchen and equipped it with a working stove and stocked pantry. He also encased the perimeter of the property with a particleboard fence, and painted a bright portrait of the Virgin Mary on the wall of the abandoned home in which he had taken up residence. "If I have to pay to get the house, I'll do it," he said. "I don't want to sleep in the streets."
Rodriguez was occupying one of the many so-called "zombie foreclosure" sites in Richmond. Typically, these are properties in which a bank has sent a notice of foreclosure to the homeowner, along with a sale date. The owner then vacates the home thinking he or she has lost it. But if the property doesn't sell at auction, the bank delays finalizing the foreclosure, forcing the previous owner to shoulder all the liability that comes with owning an abandoned home. And such properties have become a source of blight in neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, people like Rodriguez have taken advantage of the banks' actions. While the home he occupies is slated for demolition, he shouldn't have a hard time finding another abandoned one to squat in. There are currently 432 homes in some form of foreclosure in Richmond, according to RealtyTrac, an online marketplace of foreclosed and defaulted homes. And of all the foreclosed properties in Contra Costa County, 13 percent are zombies.
"I began working here back when the foreclosure crisis started, but this is an even bigger crisis," said Tim Higares, manager of Richmond's Code Enforcement Unit, which is in charge of cleaning up blight. "These [zombie] homes are sitting in purgatory, and the city is left to figure out what to do with them."
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