Cornell Willis’ childhood home in Oak Park was a mess.
His mom died inside the house on San Carlos Way in 2010, leaving the home vacant. The grass had grown to 3 feet high, and there was garbage on the lawn. Squatters eventually moved in.
As the home fell into a state of blight, Willis was facing about $6,000 worth of code enforcement fees because the city had to maintain the property. He wanted to sell the place and move on.
Then, the city got artistic.
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Carl Simpson is the city’s code and housing enforcement chief. His department spends a lot of time boarding up vacant homes and going after absentee landowners. In some neighborhoods such as Oak Park and Del Paso Heights, it seems like an endless cycle.
Simpson got in touch with NeighborWorks, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing and repairs dilapidated homes. NeighborWorks had funded a grant to a Chicago-based artist named Chris Toepfer to paint the boards placed over windows on vacant homes in Oak Park, and Simpson wanted to expand that work.
So on a Saturday morning last month, members of the city’s youth commission met at the Oak Park Community Center. They painted some plywood and headed to the home on San Carlos Way. They cleaned the yard and attached their artwork over the windows.
The designs were simple. Some boards were painted to look like window frames. But others were more colorful, with bright flowers and musical notes.
“It’s not supposed to fool people (into thinking someone is living in the home),” Toepfer said. “But would you rather look at something that looks like a window or a piece of plywood?”
Toepfer has been doing this kind of work for 20 years in nearly 30 cities, many of them Rust Belt towns with hundreds of abandoned homes. Sacramento’s stock of vacant buildings is much smaller than places such as Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland, but there are still blocks in Oak Park and Del Paso Heights where empty houses sit for years.
Simpson has those neighborhoods in mind as he thinks about the next house to paint. He’s also anxious to monitor the long-term impact of the artwork that’s already in place. He suspects that graffiti taggers won’t touch the boards, and he’s wondering if low-level crime around the homes will decrease, as has happened in some other cities. Moving forward, Simpson wants to expand the program and said he’s hoping to get financial help from one of the big hardware chain stores and partner with a local arts agency.
Code enforcement crews often head out to abandoned buildings on short notice, so Simpson would like to have an inventory of decorated window coverings ready to go. He wants kids from Oak Park and Del Paso Heights to be the young artists working on the boards and has thought about exploring whether the painting could act as community service for young people convicted of tagging buildings with graffiti.
In the meantime, the fresh paint has Willis rethinking the fate of his childhood home. He was out there Wednesday working on the house and is now contemplating moving in, not selling. That would make one fewer empty home in Oak Park – all because of a little art.
“It’s rejuvenating my property,” Willis said. “It’s kind of attracting people in a positive way.”