5 Things Cities and CDCs Don’t Get About Code Enforcement

Posted by Alan Mallach on March 26, 2013

In most circles, all you have to do is say "code enforcement" and people start mumbling about previous engagements.

As I’ve been increasingly immersed in thinking about the future of urban neighborhoods, though, I find it looming large in my thoughts. That was reinforced by spending three days with a group of savvy urban professionals pulled together by the Center for Community Progress last week.

And as I’ve come to appreciate how important code enforcement is, I’ve also come to feel that real progress is held back by the mutual short-sightedness of two actors that should be working together on it but rarely do – city governments and CDCs.  

When I talk about code enforcement I’m talking about what one might call the regulatory side of neighborhood stabilization.  What that means is first, how do you get private property owners to maintain their buildings properly, and second, if they don’t, how can somebody – whether the city or someone else – step in and correct the problem, and get problem buildings fixed or knocked down. 

It should be pretty clear that this matters. Most neighborhoods are made up of hundreds or thousands of houses, and a scattering of apartment buildings. They can be single family houses, row houses, triple-deckers, or Hartford "perfect sixes," but they are almost always separately owned by a host of different private owners. No CDC, even the most energetic, is likely to control more than a tiny fraction of its neighborhood’s housing stock. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the housing bubble and the foreclosure crisis, lower income urban neighborhoods are seeing higher vacancies, greater absentee ownership, and more and more properties falling into disrepair. 

In the typical lower income neighborhood, some owners neglect their properties, and some abandon them outright. Code enforcement is not a panacea for all of those problems. But the reality is that most private property owners, in most neighborhoods, can be motivated to keep up their properties. Getting those owners to maintain their properties responsibly is likely in the final analysis to do more for the neighborhood’s stability than all the new development and rehab activity that is likely to take place.

And the most powerful tool – really the only one – to make that happen is code enforcement. Over the past few years, at least a few cities have learned that, done right, it really can make a difference.

What Cities Don't Get

Most cities just don’t seem to get it, at a host of levels.

1. They don’t realize how important code enforcement is. With municipal budgets tight and revenues declining, too many mayors and city managers see it as an easy place to cut. Cleveland and Detroit, among others, have cut their code enforcement personnel by about 50 percent since the middle of the last decade.

2. They don’t understand that to have an impact, code enforcement has to be strategic. Many cities still treat code enforcement as a process of responding to complaints, with a set of "one size fits all" responses, instead of a proactive approach that recognizes the differences between neighborhoods tailors its strategies to each area’s priorities and realities. One notable exception is Baltimore, where the city has put in place code enforcement strategies targeted to different housing market conditions, and integrated them with the city’s redevelopment and demolition efforts.

3. Few seem to appreciate that citizens, their community organizations and neighborhood-based CDCs are their natural allies in making code enforcement work, instead of being passive bystanders or even antagonists. While some cities have enlisted neighborhood organizations and CDCs – beyond perhaps encouraging them to report violations – in their code enforcement efforts, they are few and far between. One notable exception is the city of Cleveland, where a formal partnership agreement, establishing a division of responsibility between the city and its neighborhood-based CDCs, has leveraged the city’s limited resources and brought about more effective, more responsive ways of dealing with citizen complaints and bringing about better property maintenance.

What CDCs Don't Get

Myopia exists on both sides. Just as few cities appreciate the importance of being strategic and partnering with civic associations and CDCs, few CDCs seem to get how important code enforcement is for their neighborhoods, or that they are needed to participate in it. Here's what CDCs need to realize.

1. Code enforcement is how you go to scale. Fixing up or building a small number of houses, while others are falling apart around them, is not a recipe for neighborhood stabilization. Doing more rehabs, or "going to scale," is usually not an option. NSP is winding down and no new public money is visible on the horizon. Code enforcement is the one tool we have, however imperfect, that can bring about better property maintenance and improved physical conditions across the board.

2. It won't happen without you. Instead of standing on the sidelines, CDCs should be actively pushing their local governments to adopt more effective, more strategic, ways to use their resources—both their code enforcement workforce and the legal tools at their disposal. CDCs should be proposing partnerships with local government to leverage city resources and enable the CDCs to become active players in shaping the future of their neighborhoods. 



(Photo: Syracuse, N.Y., July 1, 2005 -- From left, SEMO inspector Bob Simpson, FEMA inspector Mike Cosbar and City of Syracuse code enforcement officer Mike Bova examine the outside of a house where the foundation wall was washed out. Credit: Nicholas J. Lyman/FEMA.)

About the author more »

Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, is the author of many works on housing and planning, including Bringing Buildings Back, A Decent Home, and Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective. He has served as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, N.J. from 1990 to 1999, and teaches in the City and Regional Planning program at Pratt Institute. He is also a fellow at the National Housing Institute.

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26 Mar 13, 11:03 am

Interesting article, but it ignores the fact that many property owners simply don’t have the financial resources to improve the homes.  Unless you solve the financial part of that side of equation, all you’re going to have is increasingly harsh penalities on low-income homeowners.

The other side of the story is that code enforcement is not applied consistently and fairly.  Landlords have told me of city receiving code complaints whenever they rent to a black tenant in a white neighborhood, of the city pursing the landlord’s property with a nit-picky attitude (in one case, the same inspector couldn’t point to the alleged “violation” on a re-visit), etc.  One landlord documented the numerous tickets he received on his relatively decent property while surrounding properties had far worse violations that were apparently unnoticed.

Steve Lockwood
26 Mar 13, 11:59 am

    You’re right on every point. That said, it’s challenging for CDCs to have the staff resources to work on code enforcement on the level we would like to. We end up trying to do the job for the city in our spare time. There has never been a funding stream to support this work.
    Additionally, there are serious political obstancles. Middle-class districts, with strong organizations and connections, will always demand and get full service, while the communities that should be prioritized languish.
    Particularly on the question of resources—where do we go to create even 1 dedicated staffer to work on code enforcement for this large disinvested community? Suggestions?
Steve Lockwood
Frayser CDC
Memphis, TN

Brian Higgins
26 Mar 13, 4:31 pm

Not every neighborhood is fortunate enough to have a CDC to help monitor housing conditions.  In Greensboro, NC where I live, we are in the midst of an almost wholesale revamp of not only how our code compliance efforts are administered, but also in investigating approaches to save homes from the debris dump.  A combination of vigilant individuals and citywide housing advocates have pressured the City for some time to look at ways to improve code compliance - especially after the State legislature repealed legislation that enabled the City to conduct proactive rental housing inspections.  The City has for years been overly reliant on a complaint-based system which disproportionately impacted the ability of already disenfranchised, lower-income households from getting the City’s attention.  It is expected that new administrative policies and a revised minimum housing standards code will be in place by June.  The process of getting to that point would be an entire blog post…one I would be glad to do for rooflines if it is interested.

Ray Neirinckx
28 Mar 13, 10:19 pm

While I agree with the premise of Alan’s observation, the reality is that code enforcement, especially in distressed markets still reeling from foreclosure and negative equity, could push marginal homes into possible abandonment and further decline. So the question becomes how do you repair homes with negative equity to stabilize neighborhoods?

Abbott Gorin
2 Apr 13, 8:39 am

As a former litigator for NYC’s Housing Litigation Bureau I must take some issue with what has been said.  Effective code enforcement serves as a floor for habitable housing.  Turning a blind eye to this under the guise, of small homeowners can’t afford the repairs is not the answer.  The answer lies in rent receiverships.  Now admittedly this is a challenge to find responsible not for profits to run multiple dwellings in order to prevent abandonment.  In fact later on if your alternative management program is successful you will also need to keep an eye on the managers to prevent against their skimming money off an already depleted rent roll.  Still the potential for community groups and land trusts to acquire buildings that cannot be obtained in the free market is an enourmouse upside to proper code enforcement.

Jeremy Liu
28 Apr 13, 12:21 am

Great post and important comments!  I recently wrote a follow up post entitled “The New Age of Code Enforcement” http://www.rooflines.org/3181/the_new_age_of_code_enforcement/ and I’d love to know what you think about our project HousingCheckup (http://www.housingcheckup.org).

Eric Anderson
29 Jan 16, 11:20 am

The article does seem to be insensitive to long time property owners and preferential to gentrification. This only increases the stress on resources for housing. Also, it’s becoming clear that gentrification of a neighborhood is often fleeting. This eventually becomes a losing proposition for all concerned except for brokers.

Kathy Reitinger
19 Feb 16, 3:09 pm

As a Code officer, I treat everyone the same way, I am willing to work with the property owner on improvements, even to helping them find funds from local sources. I do however take things very seriously if I have to deal with a slum landlord who won’t bring his/her property up to the minimum in the codes. I wish the Courts would make these landlords live in their own properties as part of their fines.
No heat, no water, leaking tub, rotting floors, broken windows, doors that don’t shut or lock properly, carpet that is well beyond its life span, bad wiring, unsafe foundations, mold and, well, you get it. They still get the rent every month from the tenants whom cannot afford anything nicer. A community that embraces code enforcement and groups that can help add up to a winning combination.

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