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

    FEMA inspector and city inspectors examine the foundation of a house.
    SEMO inspector Bob Simpson, left, 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, in Syracuse, N.Y. Photo by Nicholas J. Lyman/FEMA

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


    1. 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.

    2. Allen-
      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

    3. 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.

    4. 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?

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    7. 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.

    8. I would like to publish what Code enforcement has done for me. If it wasn’t for code enforcement I would be dead at this point. Code enforcement is very very important to any community. I want to publish what Code enforcement has done for me. The topic will be. Debbie Management rental agency gave me a death sentence. Code enforcement saved my life. I didn’t use her full name of the company yet. I will tell you this. I was posioned for 30 days from carbon monoxide. And in the cold for over 14 days with no heat.

    9. Has anyone had issues where Code Enforcement appears to overstep its boundaries? We have been in our home for over 20 years, have always kept our property maintained, and have often been complimented on our curb appeal yet we have recently been targeted for a parking violation in our backyard ( we have a large back lot that holds a separate garage). We have always had gravel parking in the backyard but recently added a parking pad to accommodate our oversized vehicles and our new teen drivers. The CE officer wants us to install concrete over the existing gravel driveway. We don’t want a sea of concrete in our backyard and suggested that we use the permeable pavers that allow grass to be seen and allow for better drainage. The city would not allow it… their reasoning is that they cannot tell if someone is parking on the permeable pavers or just grass…so because THEY can’t regulate it they won’t allow it. We are all for improving the housing issue ( one of our neighboring houses had to be torn down bc it was derelict… another needs it) but this feels like harrassment.

    10. I’m going to lose my house because of code violations I can’t afford to fix, yet I somehow make too much money to get the low income compliance loan. So now my taxes have doubled because of reinspection fees, my mortgage payment with escrow is up to $1800 when it used to be about $680 and soon my household of 7 will be homeless because I can’t afford to pay. All because I need a new roof and tuck pointing on the chimney. I’d move but this whole experience has screwed my credit so we literally have no where to go. So thanks City of Milwaukee for ruining my life.

    11. How to solve income inequality and housing shortages? Loosen building codes for exisitng structures that are older than 50 years. Encorage municipalities to have a public general contractor to manage renovations “at cost” for lower income owners and low income landlords, with financing that gets tacked on to the property taxes. Build new developments near cities “at cost of labor and wages” and sell directly “at cost” to anyone making less than 50,000 dollars a year, and prohibit renting in those new developments for 50 years. The central premise is that lowering the cost of housing for millions of workers will allow them to exist on the same wages that have been stagnant for 40 years. Half the pubic earns less than 50,000 a year and 80% of the stock market is held by 10%. Things will not get better unless we reduce monthly housing costs for millions of workers, the single larges part of their monthly expenses after debt payments.

    12. There is a narrow line between the benefits of zoning laws in small communities and sowing hatred & discontent with the citizens of said small communities…once an enforcement officer becomes a King George III, the citizens become Minutemen…a gradual introduction of zoning “suggestions” is apparently never considered but harsh imposition of ridiculous requirements on a community which has existed for 150 years without zoning laws is never questioned …the days of legal notice requirements in a local newspaper which no one reads any longer denies ALL citizens notice & due process when a town or city begins a zoning law enactment process….then enforcement begins and people dig their heels in…

    13. As the above comments have suggested, there’s a trade-off between keeping housing affordable, keeping housing decent, and avoiding neighborhood decline caused by dilipidated housing. It seems like it is very difficult for cities to get all three right.

    14. Please help us my 98 year old mother lives next door to 1152 22 street has lived at 1144 22 street for fifty years her neighbor has taken in a hoarder and it’s awful front yard and back yard look like a junk yard there are now rodents snakes and bugs !this is not fair to her as a tax payer or senior citizen the neighbor is in over his head don’t want him to lose his house but he needs help with this mess can you help?

    15. Code enforcement can work, if you approach it like a partnership and provide the resources people need to make the improvements. In the 1990s, while running REACH CDC, I created a program with the city of Portland’s Bureau of Buildings to conduct targeted code enforcement in a neighborhood where we were implementing a comprehensive improvement plan. Throughout the process, we offered free home repairs to qualifying homeowners, marketed low-cost loans for larger repairs, and provided volunteers for neighborhood clean-ups, yard work, and paint-a-thons. We also bought all of the vacant/derelict properties that we could and turned them into quality, low-cost rentals to ensure long-term affordability for households with lower incomes. Overall it was a very successful strategy, that we duplicated in two additional neighborhoods over the next ten years.

    16. The problem here is the glaring assuming that you should have authority over private property, the fact is you should not.

      Code enforcements sole role should be to prevent situations that would become a tort claim later by neighboring properties.

      Also far too many inspectors seem to think that the constitution does not apply to them, trespassing and violating the 4th Amendment when doing inspections. Fortunately my state supreme court has ruled they cannot enter private property without permission and need probable cause to obtain an administrative search warrant.

    17. Alan, it was a fascinating read! Code enforcement is required to protect the safety and well-being of a building’s residents. However, a lack of funds to carry out critical home upgrades in most low-income neighborhoods is a severe issue.


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