When squatters moved in next door, neighborhood angered when law enforcement response limited

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Oct. 23—When Lisa Smith noticed the air conditioning in the house next door switched on, she began to suspect something was wrong. The Fairfax Junior High teacher knew that the owner of the home had died the previous year and nothing indicated the house had been sold.

Soon after, the lights started switching on and off, and items in the windows began to move.

“I’m talking to the neighbors going like, ‘are you seeing something?'” she said of the occurrences, which began about a month ago. “One of them pops up and says, ‘oh no, there are homeless people breaking in. They are going through the side gate.'”

The conflicts in the county island near the intersection of Stockdale Highway and California Avenue began soon after. The front yard of the property flooded when the unknown neighbors turned on the water in the house. A verbal confrontation with the squatters ensued. But despite calls to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, no arrests were made since the home’s true owner is unclear.

Smith suspects the home has now become known as a “bando,” an abandoned house that becomes a magnet to unwanted guests.

“Right here in the middle of middle America, breaking into houses, breaking into abandoned homes is quite the trend, and if you can score one where the utilities are still on, apparently that is the big score,” she said. “It’s a nightmare in my life.”

To seasoned officials, squatters in abandoned homes are not a particularly new phenomenon. They say the problem has also not grown with the increase in homelessness observed throughout the state and country over the past few years.

But despite the widespread understanding that squatting is a persistent issue, law enforcement admits enforcement can be difficult if the owner of the property cannot be located.

“As long as there are vacant residences, there is this problem,” said Bakersfield Police Department Sgt. Robert Pair. “If we show up and it’s obvious, like you have a situation where the people have no paperwork and the front door has kicked in … and we’re able to get ahold of somebody who is a stakeholder in the property, we’ll arrest somebody for trespassing. It’s when you get a lot of factors when the truth is difficult to ascertain, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Kern County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Danielle Kernkamp said deputies are often dispatched to abandoned residences for utility theft and other quality-of-life issues and attempt to address the situation only for complaints to return shortly after they leave.

Across Kern County, Code Compliance officers deal with inhabitants of vacant homes frequently. The number of complaints has remained steady over the last few years, said Al Rojas, code compliance manager for the county department.

Officers look for violations by checking to see if the space is habitable. Does it have heat and water? Are the entrances and exits functional? If unsafe living conditions are present, Code Compliance can proceed with an abatement, which addresses any identified issues.

However, if those issues are not present and officers cannot locate the owner, even Code Compliance runs into the same problems as law enforcement.

“So long as they have the utilities and there are no code violations that are obvious, there’s nothing we can enforce,” Rojas said.

Still, he encouraged county residents to call in nuisance complaints to 661-862-8603. Residents of the city of Bakersfield can call 661-326-3712.

“The sooner you let us know, the quicker we can begin action on it,” he said. “We are a complaint-only department.”

For Smith and her neighbors, the incident highlights a legislative failing. She said she feels less safe in her home and believes the government services should be able to address the problems that arise with unwanted guests. What’s more, she sees the problems in her neighborhood as having the potential to grow.

“This is not isolated,” she said. “And as we have an aging population that’s not moving out of their homes, and reverse mortgages and taxes due on properties, and COVID where people can’t keep up with properties, if this is the beginning, I don’t want to see the middle or the end.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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