Official’s housing troubles continue

Times Staff Writer

First Rep. Laura Richardson was having problems making house payments, defaulting six times over eight years.

Then after a bank foreclosed on her Sacramento house and sold it at auction in May, the Long Beach Democrat made such a stink that Washington Mutual, in an unusual move, grabbed it back and returned it to her.

This week, in the latest chapter in the housing saga, the Code Enforcement Department in Sacramento declared her home a “public nuisance.” The city has threatened to fine her as much as $5,000 a month if she doesn’t fix it up.


Neighbors in the upper-middle-class neighborhood complain that the sprinklers are never turned on and the grass and plants are dead or dying. The gate is broken, and windows are covered with brown paper.

“I would call it an eyesore,” said Peter Thomsen, a retired bank executive who lives nearby.

The city action was prompted by police action. Police were twice called to investigate reports of a suspicious person in or around the house, perhaps a homeless man squatting there. Officers called the Code Enforcement Department, which boarded up a broken door.

Code enforcement inspectors visited the house twice in July, finding “junk and debris” in the driveway and “rotting fruit on the ground in the rear yard which creates rodent harborage,” according to department documents.

Ron O’Connor, operations manager of the Code Enforcement Department, said homes in the Curtis Park area seldom were tagged as a public nuisance.

“It’s a really nice neighborhood,” he said.

Asked about the house, Richardson’s office released a statement that said: “Neither Congresswoman Richardson nor her attorney have received any information referring to this matter. Any additional information will be provided at a later date.”

Richardson has few worries in the November election. The 37th District is so solidly Democratic that no Republican is running against her. Democrat Peter Mathews, who has sought the seat several times before, is mounting a write-in campaign.

Richardson began defaulting on house payments long before she bought the three-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bath home after being elected to the Assembly in 2006. She has defaulted on a home in San Pedro, where her mother lives, and her residence in Long Beach for amounts ranging from $5,742 to almost $20,000, according to documents on file with Los Angeles County.

Five of the defaults occurred during a 13-month period over 2007-08 when Richardson was bankrolling her political career, lending her campaigns for Congress and Assembly a total of $177,500. In addition, she owed nearly $9,000 in property taxes on the Sacramento house, and the city Utilities Department put a lien on the property for an unpaid utility bill of $154.03.

In a letter to supporters after her money problems received widespread publicity in June, Richardson said she was current on her house payments.

“Many elected officials are married, rely on two incomes or are independently wealthy,” she wrote. “I do not fit any of these descriptions. I made the decision to borrow money against my home to help finance my campaign. The election was too important to me, to our community and to our country to roll over.”

Although Richardson lost her Sacramento house, she got it back under unusual circumstances.

Real estate investor James York bought the two-story house May 7 for $388,000. Richardson had paid $535,000. York recorded the deed May 19 and sent a work crew to renovate the house.

York said Washington Mutual filed a letter of recision of the sale June 2 with Sacramento County.

Experts said such a move after the deed was recorded was almost unheard of.

“It seems to me it has nothing to do with the law, but it has to do with [Washington Mutual] trying to be deferential to a congresswoman,” said Grant Nelson, the William H. Rehnquist Professor of Law at Pepperdine University.

York sued. The case was settled in early July with each side agreeing not to talk about the terms.

In addition, Washington Mutual paid the tax lien on July 31, according to Sacramento County.

The public nuisance notice -- known as a vacant building ordinance violation -- was posted on Richardson’s house Tuesday.

An inspection, it says, “revealed the structure on your property is vacant, is not in compliance with minimum maintenance standards and/or constitutes a public nuisance.”

The owner of the house is listed on the notice as Red Rock Mortgage Inc., which is York’s company.

O’Connor, the Sacramento code official, said the notices are taped onto the building and sent to the owner, return receipt requested.

During a phone interview, O’Connor checked county tax assessor records and said that Richardson is listed as the owner and that the notice would be sent to her.

The notice says that a $1,000 penalty can be assessed against the property if progress is not made to bring it into compliance within 30 days. The penalty could grow to as much as $5,000 per month unless progress is made to improve conditions.

Neighbors have complained about the state of the house for months. They were optimistic when York sent his crew to begin renovations, but now say it is worse than ever.

“I can’t make myself go by there. It hurts too much,” said Sharon Helmar, who sold the house to Richardson after living there for 30 years. “We took good care of it, and it’s a lovely house.”