It's a sign of how bad the situation with squatters has become in Irma Hall's neighborhood that twice in recent months a house near hers caught fire and both times people not authorized to live there fled amid the blaze.
Worried that these squatters might harm her children, she and her husband call the police "all the time" to report people living in the otherwise vacant house on 20th Street downtown. But the squatters keep coming back.
"There's only so much they (Bakersfield police) can do," she said.
A new local business aims to address the problem by giving police information about who, if anyone, has proper authorization to occupy a given residence.
Squatters Protection Act, launched recently by Bakersfield Realtor David Knoeb, allows property owners to register their homes with local law enforcement. That way, if a squatter is found on the premises, police can quickly access a property and quickly determine whether anyone inside is trespassing.
Knoeb, former president of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors, said he came up with the idea after spending seven months trying to get a squatter to leave a property he was dealing with. He said removing squatters typically takes at least two months and can cost many thousands of dollars in legal fees, physical damage and lost rent.
FILLING IN BLANKS
The main problem, he said, is that police officers called to follow up on a report of squatters don't know whether the person they talk with at the property is a legitimate tenant. Unlike with the Department of Motor Vehicles, he said, police have no simple database of ownership information to consult.
"There's a lot of gray areas in there that law enforcement just don't understand — who the legal owner is and if there's a legal contract between the owner and the squatter," he said.
But with SPA, he said, property owners pay a registration fee of between about $70 and $90 per residence per year. After using SPA's smartphone app to file the information with the company, customers get their property on a list that's easily accessible by police.
Next time a squatter shows up, and someone reports it, the unauthorized occupant can be told to leave or be charged with trespassing.
Bakersfield Deputy City Attorney Richard Iger had never heard of anything like SPA, but after working with Knoeb for more than a year to come up with a workable system, he said, the product looks like it could help.
Successfully removing the squatter will still ultimately come down to Bakersfield Police Department officers doing good investigative work on the scene, he said. But now officers have "another tool" in their toolbox.
Officers would otherwise have to rely on official property records, Iger said. "The only difference is that we have a contact number to go along with (the name of) the property owner," he said.
Squatters occasionally do present challenges to local property owners, said Scott Tobias, manager-broker of Century 21 Jordan-Link & Co. in Bakersfield. But it's more a problem for rental property managers than single-family homebuyers.
That said, he noted Knoeb's app is of sufficient interest that a meeting has been scheduled to present the service Monday afternoon to members of BAR.
"There's nothing worse than going to show a property, or somebody closes escrow, and somebody's living there," Tobias said. "Then you have to figure out how to get them out."
Ian Sharples, a representative of the local landlords organization Income Property Association of Kern, said squatters aren't a huge problem in Bakersfield. But he said it does happen.
Knoeb's business, he asserted, "could be useful under the right circumstances."
The service is not intended for regular evictions, Knoeb said. He emphasized that it would be wrong for a landlord to use SPA to try to force a tenant off a property for non-payment of rent.
But for the right client trying to keep out unauthorized residents, he said, the product can be a money-saver.
"Thousands of homeowners spend millions of dollars every year to remove squatters and trespassers," he said. "I'm just trying to help them reduce their costs."