CAMDEN, NJ — When Police Lt. Gabe Rodriguez walked into a meeting last November to discuss public safety in the waterfront south, he wouldn’t have imagined that soon he’d get a call about a property owner that was — not in Camden — but over 2,800 miles away in the Golden State.
“I remember it was one of the first ones after we started doing the administration of code enforcement in the area,” Rodriguez told TAPinto Camden during a sit-down at the Heart of Camden headquarters. “We got wind through a neighbor, a woman, who was literally in tears because there were rodents and other animals in the backyard. It looked like a dumpster back there.”
The owner was discovered to have over $140,000 in property liens — a legal claim on an asset which allows the holder to obtain access to a property if debts haven’t been paid.
Code enforcers, “did a once-over on the entire house and provided the necessary cleaning services,” explained Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.
Seven part-time county dispatchers and five full-time city inspectors make up the code enforcement team.
Since the end of December, a group has been dedicated mainly to the waterfront south to help mitigate public littering, identify areas in need of clean-ups, and locate blighted properties that may be vacant.
Citywide, Camden spends upwards of $4 million a year on cleaning trash throughout the city.
Rodriguez said not every property is as straightforward as this instance with the California owner — since designating an owner a slumlord is not clear-cut.
And moreover, after the services were provided in that case, the property remains in place without a tenant — at risk to ending up back in square one.
Additional services and maintaining
The new model is three-pronged — combining the powers of the community, the Camden County Police Department (CCPD) and the city’s Code Enforcement division.
The crammed November meeting Rodriguez attended also had to do with housing, economic development, and how to engage businesses in the area.
“Soon we started talking about public safety,” said Carlos Morales, Executive Director of the Heart of Camden. “Combining public safety and code enforcement just made sense since they’re both quality of life issues. So the first conversation was, 'What are the hot areas?’ We also brought up the problems we’ve had with abandoned cars, vacant houses and squatters.”
At least three properties have been demolished in the last two months as part of the efforts. City officials could not immediately provide the number of vacant properties that have been discovered thus far in the area.
Morales said residents were understandably dubious at first about the undertaking.
“We did make some drug arrests and were able to execute a search warrant a drug search warrant right on Winslow Street...but I’d emphasize that our efforts were not about overtly issuing summonses for everything,” said Rodriguez. “It really came down to making the right kind of change. For instance, around the time we began we had an academy of 52 officers graduate. We sent them out and said, ‘This is a community you can introduce yourself to over the next two weeks.’”
Code enforcers are also present in other parts of the city and open to tips, Keashen said.
As for the next sector Rodriguez plans to dedicate a large cohort code enforcers to, he said a decision has not yet been made.
"I'm still not mentally done with this area," he said.
Rodriguez is currently coming up with a game plan for the future of the waterfront south — what Morales called the “sustainment phase” — before he moves onto another Camden neighborhood.
The lieutenant also noted that regardless of the part of the city he will head to next, he plans to have a more protracted timeline.
“I first thought the model would be heavily in effect for three weeks or so before we moved on, and we’re into month two,” he explained.
Another problem facing the community, not just in the waterfront south, that he took note of was prostitution.
"Those are victims of circumstance,” said Rodriguez. "We know there are services, and we'll work to connect them to those. Because of what we've been doing out here, we are seeing less of it. The police presence has increased with walking patrols and that makes a difference.”
Morales added, "Now it's about keeping it up.”