Lately I have become an ad hoc instructor on the topic of researching properties for housing reclamation and foreclosure defense by other participants in the Occupy Oakland movement. Occupy Oakland has begun to focus on bank foreclosed properties as the nexus between the takeover by the 1% of our country and it's direct effect on our local community. This realization by Occupy Oakland as well as Occupy Oakland has been a tremendous inspiration for me as I have been fighting for a decade for housing rights and squatting. I am proud to be offering my experience to the movement.
On that note I am offering the step by step process I go through in Oakland to research a property. I provide this information to expand the actions throughout Oakland as well as to offer a template that may be used by occupiers throughout the U.S. and the World.
Step One: Identify Properties
Before you can begin researching properties you must have a specific property or properties in mind. How you identify these properties depends on what you intend to do.
A. Foreclosure Properties
For foreclosure defense you can ask people who are in foreclosure to come forward for assistance. If you want to find foreclosures first rather than wait for people to come forward there are many sources for foreclosure listings. For a list that is already compiled The San Francisco Chronicle has an online database of foreclosed properties:
If you would like to do direct research on foreclosures rather than rely on the San Francisco Chronicle there is a process for doing that as well. You can access that information through the Alameda County Recorder's office. The information is available at their office in full or in part online.
When searching for foreclosures you will search for a document called a Notice of Default. Not all Notices of Default are foreclosures. The Notice of Default must be associated with a Deed of Trust. This is because in California the mortgage and subsequent foreclosure process is done through a Deed of Trust where a trustee is granted the authority to act as a referee between the borrower and the lender in a mortgage.
To find the location of the property in foreclosure you must find a description of the property. That description is usually attached to the mortgage agreement which is in turn attached to the deed of trust. Usually the property descriptions leave out the actual address or parcel number. They provide cross streets and lot measurements instead so a little deduction will probably be necessary.
Although doing direct research is more work you have the advantage of being able to identify foreclosed properties much earlier in the foreclosure process. With that in mind it should be noted that a homeowner receiving a Notice of Default will have time to avoid foreclosure by paying the bank the delinquent amount.
B. Abandoned Properties
The best way to identify abandoned properties is by canvassing a neighborhood house by house and block by block. I recommend identifying a specific area and go up and down in one direction street by street until you've covered the area. After that go back through the same area on all the cross street. In this way you can cover a specific area in a grid ensuring that you have observed every house. Usually the best spots are the ones that are the least obvious so it's important to be thorough.
An alternative method is to use the City of Oakland's blighted property list, and then scout those particular addresses, even scouting them online with a street view setting.
Here is the City of Oakland's list of blighted properties:
Please keep in mind that only a few blighted properties are abandoned. The City of Oakland often uses blight as a means to harass people as well so make sure you are careful when using the city's list.
In the end I prefer the canvassing approach since many abandoned properties aren't reported as blight and many so called "blighted" properties are just people being harassed by the city or uptight neighbors.
The next three steps involve a trip to downtown Oakland near lake Merritt. I go to the tax assessor, tax collector, county courthouse, and county recorders office.
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Step Two: The Tax Assessor
Once you've identified a property or properties of interest it is then necessary to find the owners name and address as well as the parcel number. This information is available at the office of the Alameda County Assessor – Public Records which is located at the Alameda County Administration Building - Room 245, 1221 Oak Street, Oakland, CA.
The Alameda County Assessor's office does provide some information on their website at http://www.acgov.org/MS/prop/index.aspx
The owner's name and address is not provided online so you must call, write, or physically go to the assessor's records department. I recommend going down physically because it is the easiest way to research a list of properties.
As you do this research you will start looking for red, yellow, and green flags on properties:
Property ownership has changed recently
The owner's address is near the property
The owner's address is the same as the abandoned property
The ownership information has not changed in a long time
The owner's address is far away
The owner's address is invalid
Yellow Flags (ie more research needed)
The owner is an estate or a trust
The owner is a bank or other such institution
The owner is a government agency
Not all red, yellow, or green flags necessarily mean a property is not viable for your purposes, but they should be taken into account before deciding on a course of action.
Step Three: Tax Collector
With a property address or parcel number you can find if the owner has been paying the property taxes. This information is important if you are looking for an abandoned property to occupy. It is also insightful to know whether the owner has paid their property taxes if only to have a general idea about the situation the property is involved with generally.
Tax info can be obtained at the tax collector's office in person or online at http://www.acgov.org/propertytax/index.htm The Alameda Tax Collector is located in the lobby of the Alameda County Administration Building so it is conveniently located in the same building as the assessor's office. In some counties the tax collector and assessor are the same administration. That is not the case in Alameda County.
Step Four: Court Documents
Now that you have the name of the owner one can search the court records to see what litigation the owner of record is or has been involved in. In Alameda County you can reach the Rene C. Davidson courthouse through a tunnel connecting it to the county administration building through their respective basements.
After leaving the tax assessor and collector's offices you can take the elevator to the basement. Exit the elevator to the right and follow the long hallway past the registrar of voters. On your left you will see a set of elevators and stairs. They will take you to the lobby of the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse.
Near the security screening area you will see the entrance to the Clerk of the Superior Court's office. Enter that door and go all the way back. There will be some computer in a back area. On these computers you can search the court's databases for any litigation pertaining to any individual. Enter in the owner of records name and choose the types of cases you are interested in and the time frame. I usually make my search as wide as possible.
Once you search the records a list of cases may come up. Sometimes an owner of record has never been involved in any litigation, but usually there are at least some cases. You can write all the case numbers down and then look the cases up later on the courts website here: http://apps.alameda.courts.ca.gov/domainweb/html/casesumbody.html
This website provides access to every document ever filed in any case since the court switched away from microfiche. Very old cases still stored in microfiche must be viewed personally.
Here are some red, yellow, and green flags:
Recent cases indicating the owner is actively engaged in litigation (ie not a default proceeding)
A recently commenced probate case indicating that the owner's estate is about to be disbursed
A recent unlawful detainer case (ie eviction)
A very old and unresolved probate case
A bankruptcy proceeding
A foreclosure proceeding
Step Five: Recorder's Office
The Alameda County Recorder's Office provides access to all official recorded documents. Some research can be done from their website at http://rechart1.acgov.org/search.asp?cabinet=opr
The information on the website is very limited so a physical trip to the recorder's office is usually necessary. Fortunately in Alameda County the recorder's office is just around the corner from the assessor, collector, and court offices. The Alameda County Recorder's Office is located at 1106 Madison Street; Oakland, CA 94607.
Here are some documents to look for:
This document shows a transfer from a previous owner to another. The most recent Deed usually matches with the assessor's office records.
Deed of Trust
This document indicates a mortgage has been taken out on a property. The lender is usually a bank, and the trustee is the referee between the bank and the borrower. A trustee has the power to commence a foreclosure proceeding if the bank is not being paid.
Notice of Default
As mentioned above.
Of course there are many more recordable documents and any of them may provide useful insights.
Step Six: Engage People Directly
Now that you have all this information you may have a good idea what properties are viable for the purposes you intend. I suggest now directly engaging the owner for permission if they are available. Talking to neighbors is a double edged sword. If you are starting a community garden or defending a foreclosed property engaging the neighborhood directly can be a good idea.
If you are squatting an abandoned building I recommend treading more lightly and focusing on improvements you are making to the property as the new owner or property manager. (note: squatting is a form of property ownership, civil code section 1006) If neighbors press you on how you acquired the property I usually say that I paid the back taxes. (code of civil procedure section 325) Of course I discuss this in much greater detail in other posts, but simply put it is usually a bad idea to tell your neighbors that you are squatting since the term squatting has such a negative stigma to some people in our society.
Doing research is very important when occupying contentious space. The more you know the more likely you are to succeed, the better you can develop your message, and the better your project looks even if you fail. Just by being informed you can garner a great deal of respect and credibility.
Of course sometimes it is important to take risks and act on what you believe to be right. The research you do should help you plan the best strategy given the circumstances. There never is a perfect property nor a perfect plan so there will always be a level of risk when defending a foreclosure, planting a guerrilla garden, or squatting an abandoned house.
Research can improve the odds of success, but cannot guarantee it. What is important is that we take action based on our beliefs to fight for a better world. Occupy Oakland has already lost at least five spaces thus far. For each occupation this may be considered a failure, but for the movement it represents a tremendous success bringing awareness to the issues of injustice.
I hope that Occupy Oakland can reclaim more spaces and be able to keep them long enough to create a permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure.