San Jose’s top offenders in the fight against blight? A marijuana church and multimillion-dollar homes

A shuttered marijuana church. Multimillion-dollar mansions. A disheveled house with cats crawling around the driveway and a well-manicured home with prominent signs that warn trespassers they will be shot.

These San Jose properties are among the worst code violators in the city when it comes to monetary fines; each owes more than $100,000 for penalties that span from selling weed without a license to building projects with no permits — charges that in some cases have languished for years, including one dating back to the start of President George W. Bush’s second term.

Altogether, the nine properties are on the hook for $1.05 million, though it’s unclear whether the city will ever retrieve fines from some of the owners.

The Mercury News requested the list as San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan pushes to focus resources citywide on cleaning up graffiti, weeds and garbage and tackle a growing backlog of code violation cases that now number in the thousands through more proactive enforcement.

The spotlight recently has focused on downtown as Mahan and Councilmember Omar Torres have publicly admonished the owners behind a run-down church on East St. James Street which was covered in a torn-up tarp that has since been taken down. (Clean-up efforts have sparked their own controversy.) The code enforcement department will also be devoting at least one officer to specifically cover the downtown core.

The mayor is also proposing legislation that would increase the fines for designated city, state, or federal landmarks from $100,000 to $500,000 in a bid to pressure Z&L Properties, the owners of the downtown church, to get their act together.

A review of the nine properties reveals that none of the top violators are in the downtown neighborhoods, and instead are spread out across the city. The Mercury News is identifying only the address of the former marijuana church, at 2142 The Alameda, since the business located there has closed.

The property that owes the most is on Auzerais Avenue in the Buena Vista neighborhood — it has a whopping $132,056 bill to pay the city. According to code enforcement data, the property was first flagged in 2010 for unpermitted construction work that includes a second-floor deck. Past inspections of the property noted holes in the living room ceiling, cockroach and rat infestations, and a leaky bathroom floor. Records show that the property was transferred in 2021 to a limited liability company that is controlled by the property owner.

On Thursday, a visit to the address revealed a driveway filled with junk and roughly a half-dozen kittens and cats roaming the property. A resident of the house who identified himself as Daniel Velasquez said he was unaware of the fines against the property. “I think the owner built some sort of living room in there,” he said while pointing to the home’s broken-down garage door.

Deputy Director of Code Enforcement Rachel Roberts explained that fines against properties max out at $100,000, but can creep up beyond that cap if penalties like late fees are included. She said the city then places a lien on the property in certain cases and lawsuits can be pursued if an owner is disturbing surrounding residents. The Auzerais Avenue property has had a lien on it since 2017. Attempts to reach the property owner were unsuccessful.

“Most of the time, we do get compliance,” said Roberts. “This is just a small percentage of cases that end up going down this path. This process applies to everybody, from a resident to a big corporate developer.”

To the west sits the former Coachella Valley Church, an eclectic classical revival building with white columns and a fountain that was once a marijuana dispensary. The business closed after the city filed a lawsuit in 2017 against its owners for not acquiring the proper business permits.

Code enforcement started pursuing a case against the owners back in 2013, department data shows, because of the permitting issue. Records show ownership was transferred in 2018 to a Nevada-based limited liability company that’s had its business license permanently revoked. The property has now racked up $130,818 in fines.

The building was once emblazoned with a large cross on its roof that has been taken down, and a sign advertising its church has been covered. The owners of the building did not answer the door.

Other top violators include single-family homes that appear well-maintained on the outside.

The exterior of a property on Piedmont Road in San Jose, California. The city has issued $104,682 in code violations on the property. (Gabriel Greschler/Bay Area News Group) 

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