I-Team

uFixIt: Cleaning up hoarder's out-of-control home

Monday, February 20, 2012
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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This is uFixIt week and the ABC7 I-Team is taking your emails straight to your local officials and getting things fixed. For this report, the I-Team took on a big project -- cleaning up a home you'll have to see to believe.

A man with a hoarding problem is creating havoc on a quiet East San Jose street and it has been going on for decades. With no one left to call, they asked the I-Team to get involved. When they sent us a picture, we agreed enough is enough.

Imagine living next door to a yard so covered in trash you can see it from a satellite. It's visible on Google Maps.

"Looks like a cyclone went through here and just piled everything up here," said neighbor Rudy Valente.

Valente has lived two doors down for 47 years. He says, "You can't even see the house, all that's there is debris, junk. I mean solid, solid junk."

A next door neighbor tries to wedge his side of the fence against all the weight building up text to the trashy house.

"The city should be ashamed of themselves, or anybody that's got authority to come out here and do something about this," said Valente.

We did some digging and found out this house in unincorporated East San Jose still belongs to Robert and Bessie Baker on paper. But state records show they both died in 2002. The Bakers lived here with their son Richard. Neighbors say Richard slowly piled each truck, appliance and bike one at a time over 40 years.

It's all too much for Valente. Neighbors who didn't want to go on camera describe the 58-year-old Richard as eccentric and volatile. Whether or not he still lives here is up for debate. He hasn't been seen for months and that's not that unusual, but they always worry that when he disappears, he might be dead in the house. So we called the fire department about that and they brought the sheriff and everybody went in, which wasn't an easy task.

"We had some deputies inside the house and the house also was full of debris, boxes piled up to the ceiling and stuff like that...that made it a little bit difficult," said Santa Clara County Sheriff Sgt. Jose Cordoza.

It wasn't the first time they'd been there for a welfare check and there was no sign of Richard, but plenty of excitement on the street.

"The kids call it the spooky house and little by little people throw stuff there you know," said another neighbor.

So, how did it get to this? Neighbors say things got much worse after Richard's parents died. It went from untidy to out of control, and they say it's about time the county took notice.

But we worked our way through a maze of agencies such as: the San Jose Fire Marshal, Santa Clara County Fire Marshal, County Sheriff, County Department of Public Health, County Department of Environmental Health, State Department of Health, the Assessor's Office, and County Coroner. Not one of them is taking responsibility. We got referred again and again to Santa Clara County Code Enforcement and that is another dead end.

"We're looking to change somebody's behavior and this time what I can tell you is we don't have the tools to change people's behavior for certain people like Mr. Baker," said Jim Lanz from the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development.

Code inspectors visited the property 20 times and took baker to court. But even when a $100 a day fine grew to $6,600 and went to collections, Baker ignored county officials. And that's it. Lanz says unless a property owner is willing to change, his office can't force him to and aesthetics is not a safety issue.

"So it's a very touchy subject, it's property rights, it's personal lifestyle issues and that's why I said earlier, we're talking, the county has minimum standards, not to say that we don't care, but we are not trying to tell people how to live their lives," said Lanz.

So we decided to try one last avenue and took the neighbors' complaints to county Supervisor George Shirakawa.

"The buck stops with me, Dan, I can't blame anybody else. You can blame me. The buck stops here with me. I'm the last one on the list. You don't have to go any further than me," said Shirakawa.

Shirakawa told me county staff will try to address the mental health issues that lead to all this mess, if he can find Richard Baker. And after questions from the I-Team last week, the supervisor contacted the fire marshall who's declared the property unsafe. The case is with the county counsel. Next step will be finally a clean-up.

Noyes: How long with the clean up take?
Shirakawa: I don't know.
Noyes: Ballpark even.
Shirakawa: The sooner the better, I don't know. I can't direct the staff in any time period, but in the next couple of months, I would say we should have some action.

There you have it. The supervisor says the home will be cleaned up in about two months. You know we'll be watching. Tax records show someone, probably Richard, kept paying property taxes on the home after the parents died, but he stopped in 2009. Add to that the unpaid fines and now you finally have the county's attention.

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uFixIt, san jose, i-team, dan noyes
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