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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.