Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Real Estate: Community Housing Council helps 2,200 homeowners

Housing counseling programs are sharing their accomplishments with the public as 2012 comes to an end.

The Community Housing Council of Fresno, a counseling agency that serves homeowners throughout the Valley, has provided foreclosure help to more than 2,200 homeowners since 2008.

The agency and other counseling organizations nationwide received funding from the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program that pays for counseling services and training for counselors.

The national program was created by Congress in December 2007 to address the foreclosure crisis by increasing housing counseling opportunities for families. Since then, Congress has awarded the program a total of $619.87 million.

In turn, the program has helped 1.5 million at-risk homeowners nationwide. It is administered by NeighborWorks America, a nonprofit trainer of community development and affordable housing professionals.

“The latest report shows that the program helped save homeowners, local governments, and lenders approximately $920 million,” said Eileen Fitzgerald, chief executive officer for NeighborWorks America CEO. “The program could not have achieved this success without the CHC and other NFMC program organizations.”

The housing council’s executive director, however, celebrates this achievement with words of caution. While foreclosure activity in the Valley has slowed in recent months, the threat of foreclosure still remains for thousands of homeowners, John Shore said.

“Even though there are signs that the housing industry is recovering, there are still a serious number of Valley homeowners that are struggling to make their house payments,” Shore said.

“They need to know that there is help and that help is provided to them at no cost through the NFMC program.”
For more information about foreclosure help programs, call the housing council at (559) 221-6919 or visit chcfresno.org.

Look for these stories in 2013

A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.

At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.

California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.

At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.

— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.

— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.

— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.

— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.

— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.

— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.

— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.

Fresno County does not see income opportunity in trash franchises

If the city of Fresno can make $2.5 million a year by franchising its trash service, shouldn’t the county of Fresno be cashing in on its independent trash haulers?

Not necessarily, county leaders say.

County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said charging private companies for the right to pick up trash could result in rate hikes for the tens of thousands of households in unincorporated areas.

“In other words, instead of trying to get the revenue, let’s make sure we can keep the rates as reasonable as we can,” he said.

Navarrette wasn’t around when the county began contracting with private haulers for residential trash service seven years ago. But he suspects that the little bit of money that might be made off haulers wasn’t worth the hassle.

Plus, the situation for the county is slightly different from the city’s. Unlike the city, the county had no existing trash department when it began contracting for trash service in 2005, meaning there were no existing customers or business model to prove its worth.

The county, though, does charge a nominal fee to the 12 contractors that pick up trash – to cover administrative expenses.

The Fresno City Council just a week ago gave final approval to outsourcing residential trash collection, a move that Mayor Ashley Swearengin said can bring in an initial $1.5 million in signing fees and $2.5 million annually in franchise fees.

Conservative Quintanar quits GOP — but not its ideals

Serafin Quintanar

You really have to wonder about the future of the Republican Party — not only in California, but maybe even the nation — if people like Serafin Quintanar are jumping ship.

Quintanar, 42, is a rock-solid conservative and Tea Party activist. In 2010, he finished a distant third in the 20th Congressional District Republican primary election, which was won by Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak.

Next week, Quintanar says, he will re-register as an independent, which in the past was known in official parlance as “decline to state,” but is now called “no party preference.”

In California, a lot has been written about the decline of the Republican Party, and much of that suggested it is out of step with the state’s more liberal leanings and has become too conservative to be viable.

But Quintanar comes from a totally different angle.

“I am not leaving the Republican Party,” he says. “The Republican Party left me.”

Quintanar says the party’s change in direction is a big reason why Mitt Romney lost the presidential election. Romney, he says, he lost the Republican Party’s base. By comparison, he says, Barack Obama won a second term because he concentrated on winning the Democratic Party’s base.

Quintanar says he will continue to support conservative causes and conservative candidates and elected officials, regardless of party affiliation.

Local Republican strategist Michael Der Manouel Jr. says there are conservatives leaving the party for reasons similar to Quintanar, only they are doing so “without pronouncement.”

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” says Der Manouel, who is also chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County.

He notes that Quintanar is a Tea Party activist. He says being unaffiliated frees up Quintanar and other like-minded frustrated conservatives to “be more critical of everybody — and not be accused of being partisan.”

Quintanar agrees. As an independent voter, he anticipates being “highly courted” instead of being “taken for granted by a major party.”

“An independent conservative voter actually has greater influence over the Republican Party than a voter registered as a Republican,” he says.

Real Estate: Housing recovery to continue in 2013

The tumultuous Valley real estate market hit a turning point on the road to recovery this year when home prices started a consistent climb.

The market also saw mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, increased buyer demand as a result of fewer homes for sale and a slowdown in foreclosure activity too.

So, what does that mean for real estate in 2013?

Local Realtors are optimistic that these factors will bring good tidings for next year, but a housing expert says to be careful — more foreclosures could be in store.

John Shamshoian, the newly elected president of the Fresno Association of Realtors remains positive that home sales will pick up in the new year.

“Traditional sales rose significantly in 2012 and that trend should continue,” Shamshoian said. And “more home sellers have regained enough equity to sell their current home and take advantage of this market to purchase a more expensive home.”

Other buyers, like those who have reestablished their credit after a foreclosure, are also now qualifying for new loans, Shamshoian said.

But how about that shadow inventory of foreclosures rumored for years now to explode into the market?

Shamshoian doesn’t expect foreclosures to increase much based on this year’s activity which showed half the number of foreclosures compared to 2011.

But Fresno State’s housing expert Andrew Hansz, the director of the Gazarian Real Estate Center said “expect inventories to rise as we work through more of the distressed properties.”

The market isn’t on track for a full recovery yet and could get more complicated as the federal government works on its fiscal cliff issues, Hansz said.

“The key to a sustainable real estate market recovery is job growth,” Hansz said. “The uncertainty caused by the fiscal cliff issues we currently face is not conducive to business expansion and job growth… 2013 could be an unlucky year as the fiscal cliff is a direct and immediate threat to our economy and a real estate market recovery.”

Real Estate: California Homeowner Bill of Rights to take effect Jan. 1

(Photo provided by the California State Attorney General’s Office. California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris.)

Here’s a reminder for struggling homeowners: The California Homeowner Bill of Rights will take effect on Jan. 1. That’s next week.

The package of bills introduced by Attorney General Kamala D. Harris protects homeowners from unfair practices by banks and mortgage companies. It was signed into law in July.

“For too long, struggling homeowners in California have been denied fairness and transparency when dealing with their lending institutions,” Harris said. “These laws give homeowners new rights as they work through the foreclosure process and will give Californians a fair opportunity to stay in their homes.”

The Bill of Rights will:

  • Restrict dual-track foreclosures which allowed banks to foreclose on a home while negotiating a loan modification.
  • Guarantee homeowners a single point of contact at the lending company so the same person will be on the other end of the line working with homeowners through the foreclosure process.
  • Impose penalties on fraudulently signed mortgage documents.
  • Extend the statute of limitations to prosecute mortgage-related crimes from one to two years allowing Harris’ office to investigate and prosecute fraud.
  • Require buyers of foreclosed property to give tenants at least 90 days before starting eviction proceedings.
  • Help local governments fight blight caused by multiple vacant homes in their neighborhoods.

For more information, visit oag.ca.gov.

Use an EPA-certified wood stove, get a little break on new rules

The local air board is planning to soften new restrictions that could stop wood-burning in fireplaces most of the winter in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Wood-burning will be allowed on some no-burn days, leaders said Thursday. But an EPA-certified wood-burning device, such as a stove or heater, would have to be used.

The district will hold public hearings to determine the threshold.

Starting in 2014, the new burn bans will be triggered when soot and other debris reaches 20 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Right now, the threshold is 30.

The exemption level for people using EPA-certified devices will probably be 30 to 35, I’m told.

On an even more technical note, the new restrictions are part of the district’s plan that will be sent to state and federal authorities. But the pollution reductions won’t be claimed until the winter of 2016-2017 in the plan — a matter of bookkeeping on the way to the 2019 attainment date.

The district board moved the restrictions up two years to get the health benefits early.

 

 


Air district board briefly confused by EPA proposal

For 15 embarrassing minutes, the local air board this week seemed as confused as the public about the federal government’s new particle pollution standard.

But the confusion did make a point. There are so many different air-quality plans, updates and bureaucratic requirements that even people who should know the score are sometimes lost.

On Thursday, several board members of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District were poised to purposely miss a federal deadline for a plan to meet the 2006 hourly standard.

It seemed pointless and expensive to approve the $1 billion cleanup for an out-of-date standard.
Why not take a little extra time to rewrite it to focus on the new standard?

But a representative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told them that the proposed change is for a different standard — the annual particle standard.

The board quickly and unanimously voted to approve the cleanup plan, which should clear the air by 2019.

Fresno council: Are city’s lobbying costs justified?

Fresno pays firms in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. for lobbying and governmental relations services, and has its own in-house employee as well. The annual tab exceeds $200,000.

Is it worth it?

Fresno City Council members want to know.

During today’s weekly council meeting, a contract renewal was up for Simon & Company, which lobbies on behalf of the city in Washington, D.C. The cost: $65,000 annually for two years, with the option of two additional one-year terms.

But then the questions started.

Given the city’s tight budget, belt-tightening and outsourcing, Council President Clint Olivier asked, is having a lobbyist in the nation’s capital really necessary?

He suggested putting a federal-level lobbyist on hold for three years, and then revisiting it.

City Manager Mark Scott seemed annoyed the possibility was even raised.

Cutting the lobbyist, he said, would be a disaster for Fresno. Budgets would have to be slashed, he said, because the city has become more reliant on federal grant money that Len Simon, of Simon & Co., routinely helps land.

“He is so good,” Scott said of Simon. “He knows the people he needs to know.”

Council Member Andreas Borgeas then weighed in. The deal is good, he agreed, but what are the city’s priorities? He also thought the two new incoming council members should have a chance to weigh in on that question.

His idea: Hold off three months until those priorities are established.

Then the Sacramento lobbyist — who is paid $95,000 annually — and local Governmental Affairs Manager Katie Stevens — who made more than $66,000 last year — came into the picture.

Again Scott was miffed.

“Katie is a 70-hour a week employee often times,” he said. “Yes, she is needed.”

In fact, Scott said, all three are needed.

“We’re lucky to have this team,” he said.

But Council Member Lee Brand felt a study was in order. Could another lobbying firm in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. do it cheaper or better? Does the city need lobbyists in the two capitals and in City Hall? Can all three positions be justified?

The questions, Brand said, must be asked.

“We’ve got to have a few tools left,” Scott responded. He said council members were starting to “nitpick” and he urged them to “go do your homework” to see if the city’s lobbying ranks were overstaffed.

In the end, at Brand’s urging, the council decided to extend Simon & Company’s contract six months — to June 30. Between now and then, a council workshop will be conducted to see whether that money and position, as well as the Sacramento lobbyist and Stevens’ position, are warranted.