Work begins to clean up eyesore in Sifton

Neighbors complain about squatters, drugs at foreclosed property

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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Who knew a couple of dark-blue dumpsters might be seen as things of beauty?

That’s pretty much what folks who live near a reeking, moldering, garbage-strewn foreclosure home at 7600 N.E. 128th Ave. in Sifton have been saying since Thursday, when a cleanup crew arrived with giant trash bins and other equipment.

Finally. After four months of complaints to Clark County and work by code-enforcement officials to get all the legal hoops jumped through work will begin.

“Just getting the garbage out, that’ll be a blessing,” said Destiny Diaz, who lives with her husband and children near the home. “It’s taking a big stress off my mind to know that our kids can run around and be somewhat safe.”

“What’s not to be happy about?” said Kenneth Diaz. “Just one less danger in the neighborhood.”

Motorists on busy 76th Street have had a view of the eyesore as well, and some reacted when they saw the cleanup crew, the mother said.

“We’ve had people honking and hooting as they drove by,” she added.

Neighbors have been complaining to Clark County Code Enforcement since March 1.

It wasn’t just the rotting bags of trash, piled five feet high in places, along with old tires, broken glass, old toys and shoes, rags, batteries, a molding quilt and sofa. Everywhere on the property, front yard, side yard, back yard, inside and outside, along with a sickening damp smell of decay.

There was more.

Until very recently, neighbors said, there was a woman who stayed there at times, squatting in the home with no water and no electricity, services that had been long disconnected for non-payment.

“She’d go on these rages and scream and cuss and yell and throw things and break things,” Destiny Diaz said Friday. “The woman threatened to kill me about a year ago.”

In addition, the woman had plenty of acquaintances who showed up and stayed with her at times.

“Nonstop drug deals, to the point where they were shooting up heroin and smoking crack,” the mother said.

Before she and her husband put up a fence denoting their property line, “I found needles in our yard,” she said.

The squatter’s friends were going through the garbage for scrap metal and selling it in Portland, another neighbor said.

There was no question that there were violations, said Kevin Pridemore, a code enforcement coordinator with Clark County Community Development.

But getting from March 1 to the major cleanup that began Thursday wasn’t easy.

Officials visited the site in early March and began by sending a letter to Wells Fargo Bank in Jacksonville, Fla., which was listed as the owner in county property records.

When those were ignored, officials issued a notice and order, giving the owner until May 5 to clean it up or face fines of $100 per day.

The Columbian learned of the problem when a neighbor emailed photos of the mess. A reporter contacted a Wells Fargo spokesman in Portland and learned that the foreclosed mortgage had been packaged with others into a security, which was sold.

The actual owner turned out to be American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc. When a reporter contacted someone with that company, the employee asked someone to check and see if they owned the property. She learned they did own it and responded.

“We want this property to be returned to a livable standard so we can sell the property,” Philippa Brown, the company’s vice president for corporate communications, said around April 27.

But there was still one last hitch.

“We own the property,” Brown said. “We have the title. But we don’t have legal possession.”

Brown said her company needed to hire an attorney to file an eviction action against the squatter in court in Clark County.

On Wednesday, the attorney, Lauren Davidson Humphreys, sent an email to Pridemore saying all that had been done, and more. American Home Mortgage Servicing had asked for bids for the cleanup, picked one and the cavalry was on the horizon.

“My client has put in the order for clean up with their selected vendor so it should begin any day now,” the attorney said.

So far, 7600 N.E. 128th Ave. is a partial success story — although another neighbor said he thinks the house itself, which was damaged in a fire, will have to be demolished and hauled away.

In the bigger picture, though, it’s just a microcosm of America’s grinding partial economic collapse. There are many more foreclosures and Clark County has been hit hard, officials say.

“Five years ago, we typically had 20 or 30 cases in a year,” said Marty Snell, Community Development director. “And now we’re talking 250. That’s a tenfold increase.”

And so the work grinds on, one case at a time.

Neighbors complain, officials visit the sites, they file notices and orders and the owner is found. If the owner cares and agrees to pay, all the hoops still must be jumped through before a cleanup can be done.

It’s a big problem.

You could ask Michele Gill, who recently complained about a similarly dumpy property near Grand Boulevard, which she says has rowdy squatters and three-foot-high dry grass she thinks is a fire hazard.

She says some companies that own so many foreclosures are shirking their responsibilities.

“They have more money than God but they can’t afford to take care of the properties they own,” said Gill, a bus driver. “I think it’s disgraceful. They are ruining our neighborhoods because they are not taking care of the property they own.”

John Branton: 735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.