Margarita Chavez has the best house on the block. At least, that’s how she describes it to all who come to visit her in Detroit Park. She wants all of her neighbors to feel that same pride in their home. So Chavez patrols nearby streets to report neighborhood ills; trash, stray dogs and overgrown lawns. She’s a familiar voice to the city’s 311 operators — a squeaky wheel who knows how to get things done, for herself and her neighbors.
Chavez notes the location of a broken stove and oven before calling it in to 311, Sacramento’s customer service center. She has a regular route she takes in and out of the neighborhood, and she’ll gather information about a couple of different kinds of offenses before calling them all into the city.
Of the 22,000 complaints Sacramento’s Code Enforcement Department receives a year, 15 percent are due to inoperable or abandoned vehicles. Chavez has an encyclopedic knowledge of every house, person and vehicle in her neighborhood and she never hesitates to call in something that doesn’t look right.
Vernon Howlett lives just down the street from Chavez. They see each other often, exchanging news and keeping an eye on each other’s homes. Howlett and his wife have lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and he’s seen it improve during his time there thanks to the diligence of Chavez.
An empty lot near Chavez’s home is prone to overgrown weeds and illegal dumping. It’s one of two on the street that leads to the neighborhood’s elementary school.
In July the dry, tall grass is prone to fires. Chavez spends extra time in the summer encouraging her neighbors to call the city about it.
“When more people call about the same problem ... it has more power," she says. "It gives more voice to it.”
Chavez keeps notes and pictures of what she feels are eyesores and dangers in the neighborhood. She uses the notes in her weekly calls to 311, providing operators with addresses and details related to the alleged complaints. She likes to take pictures in case property owners dispute the allegations.
Based on her notes, Chavez calls the city to help with problems from illegal dumping to unkempt yards. She has the city’s 311 number programmed into her phone and she’ll often call in the early morning or late in the evening, when wait times aren’t quite as long. Operators staff the 311 line 24 hours a day, seven days a week and handle upwards of 250,000 calls a year.