Cops and Squatters

On the foreclosure beat in San Bernardino

If you anticipate being shot at after you knock on a door, it’s best to hang back near the knob, just outside the doorframe, a position that makes the angles all wrong for whoever may greet you. That’s where supervising code-enforcement officer Robert Houts and I stood, early on a hot November day in San Bernardino, California. Houts and his partner, Mike Jiles, were checking “open and vacant” houses—unsecured foreclosures perfect for homesteading. This one was a two-bedroom gray bungalow, a recent foreclosure, now covered in gang tags. Houts pointed to a rectangular cut, about the size of a lighter, in the screen door.

“Is that how they broke in?” I asked.

No. The hole was most likely for making exchanges. Houts suspected this was a drug house. He pointed out a tiny empty baggie on the stoop. “Probably meth.”

In the back, someone had thrown a blanket over a surrounding chain-link fence and forced open the rear door—the squatters’ main entrance. Jiles waited there to catch any “bodies” that Houts flushed out.

Houts pounded on the front door. “City of San Bernardino! If you’re in here, please show yourself!” He banged on the window and yelled again. No response.

We started working our way along the rest of the empty homes on the block, flushing one squatter out of a yellow house farther down the street. We caught a glimpse of him over a fence, but by the time we got there, he was gone. A plastic bag filled with human feces lay near the back stoop—a far more considerate approach to waste management than we found in the other squats.

Squatters tend to scatter before the morning rousts, and sneak back into the houses after dark. Many spend their days scrounging metal to sell to a scrapyard, leaving long jagged tears on the inside walls of houses where they have torn wiring out through the wallboard. After the city tried to stymie metal thieves by banning the use of shopping carts (the main conveyance for scrap) off store premises, scavengers just switched to baby carriages, some stolen from porches.

At every house, Houts examined the meters for signs of hijacked utilities, checking whether “the electric fairy” had stopped by. Where the officers found someone inside, they would issue a citation. Where they found an open foreclosure, they’d post a notice that it needed to be boarded up and otherwise brought up to code. Then they’d spend hours in the office untangling the skeins of the subprime mess, trying to identify and contact whoever was responsible for the dwelling. If the owners did nothing in response, as often happened, the city would board it up. “The banks are just waiting to get bailed out,” Houts said.

Once home to frenzied McMansion building, the Inland Empire, as the surrounding landlocked region is known, now has, by some measures, the worst foreclosure rates in the nation. “There’s one, there’s one, there’s one,” Jiles pointed out the bank-owned properties as we drove: a half-dozen on one block. Twelve percent of the houses in San Bernardino are in foreclosure. In one ward, it’s 21percent. Downtown’s squatter problem is particularly bad, though no community or neighborhood is immune. Sophisticated scamsters can blend in and occupy million-dollar houses.

By afternoon, the mercury had hit 96 degrees, and the air parched the tongue. I checked out a squat with Mike Sellinger, another code-enforcement officer, who had already rousted the couple living there five times from different properties (the woman, a former nurse, was living off Social Security). Now he was working to board up their current dwelling, inside which we found a blue plastic tub full of canned goods, a stool, and a thin gray kitten. Afterward, I asked Sellinger if he could hold down all the empty houses. He didn’t think so.

“Once they get out of there,” he said, “they’ll go find the next best place.”