A housefront porch with an exercise bike, dresser filled with shoes, a Black Lives Matter flag and Christmas lights strung up.
San Jose resident Katie Wyatt's house was issued a $250 blight citation for her exercise bike and dresser on her porch. Photo courtesy of Leslie Griffy.

San Jose resident Katie Wyatt’s house was full. With six people home for Christmas, including her mom and a cousin from Jamaica, she decided to store her exercise bike on her porch, with a dresser off to the side for shoes taken off before entering the house.

She never expected a $250 fine from the city for leaving her belongings on her own porch — a fee she couldn’t afford.

After paying for her father’s end-of-life care and funeral, money was tight. Her mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and Wyatt wanted to send money for warm meals while she was going through treatment.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to tell my mom I can’t buy her meals because of the exercise bike on my porch,’” Wyatt, who has lived in San Jose’s Northside neighborhood since 2012, told San José Spotlight.

The citation is part of a six-month pilot program San Jose’s code enforcement department implemented in November called the Focus Area Service Team program (FAST).

The program aims to address blight in six neighborhoods that have historically received the most complaints for exterior code violations, including the Northside and the East Santa Clara Street —Alum Rock Avenue corridor; the downtown area and Monterey Road corridor; and the Cassel, Mt. Pleasant, Pinehurst and La Colina areas.

Inspectors hit the Northside and East Santa Clara Street-Alum Rock Avenue neighborhoods in mid-December with more than 130 citations issued this month — with 47% for graffiti and 21% for furniture left outside.

Residents can receive fines ranging from $250 to $1,000 for common blight issues such as junk and furniture in front yards visible from the street, graffiti, inoperable vehicles and overgrown vegetation. Residents can be fined if furniture isn’t removed after 72 hours. Money collected through the fines funnel into the city’s general fund.

The Cassel and Mt. Pleasant areas will be inspected the week of Feb. 19. The Pinehurst and La Colina areas will be inspected the week of April 1.

Rachel Roberts, deputy director of code enforcement, said the program’s goal isn’t to cite residents needlessly. She said residents are notified before the inspection through the mail.

“We’re leading with outreach and education with our residents,” Roberts told San José Spotlight. “(We’re) hoping that through outreach and education, we can empower them to address any blight on their property proactively.”

Wyatt, who owns Spicy Roy’s Caribbean Grill with her husband, said she never received a notification letter warning her of the upcoming inspection. After receiving the fine, she posted about it on Facebook and Nextdoor, a neighborhood online platform, and received support from her neighbors, with one leaving an envelope full of cash at her house.

San Jose officials, including Mayor Matt Mayhan, have prioritized cleaning up blight in the city with programs such as FAST and BeautifySJ. Mahan visited Wyatt’s home on Jan. 15 and paid her fee.

“The city made a mistake rolling out the FAST program,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “But I believe staff has realized the need to redirect the focus to San Jose’s most egregious instances of blight, starting with negligent landlords and commercial property owners who aren’t doing right by the community.”

Wyatt said while she is grateful the mayor paid her fee, she wants her neighbors’ fees to be paid for or removed.

Cheryl Wessling, spokesperson for planning, building and code enforcement, said the department is considering feedback from residents as the program moves forward.

“We encourage residents to reach out so we can work with them on their concerns,” she told San José Spotlight.

The city also issued a $250 citation to Kimberly Rivera Hurtado for a couch and a high chair in her front yard. Rivera Hurtado has been renting an apartment with her mom for roughly 30 years.

She bought a new couch and moved the old one out to be picked up the next morning. Rivera Hurtado said she was notified before the inspection, but thought it was later in January.

She pulled from her savings to help her 82-year-old mom, who is on a fixed income, pay the fee.

“I think they’re just trying to find reasons to get money,” she told San José Spotlight.

Residents can appeal the fine, but have to pay it first or apply for an advance deposit hardship waiver, if they can’t afford the fee. Rivera Hurtado and Wyatt said they don’t have time because they work full time.

While Roberts encourages residents to call code enforcement with their concerns, Rivera Hurtado said the office is closed by the time she gets home from work.

Wyatt said while blight is an issue in San Jose, she wants to see code enforcement dedicate its time to abandoned buildings and businesses rather than homes.

“Shift the focus to protect our historic homes, to protect the historic buildings and to try and recruit businesses to get into all these abandoned buildings after the pandemic downtown,” she said. “A busy city is a safe city.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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