Code Enforcement and the Public Good

One of the tools that is available to a revitalization manager is the use of the code enforcement official. Some locales will partner with the local housing group or the main street organization to deal with problem properties. I have always made it a priority to get to know these people.

In most cases code enforcement is a thankless job. A Code Enforcement official rarely is the bearer of good news. They are there to enforce the ordinances and try to make all of the property owners comply with the laws. Common good is transferred when everyone is treated the same. Code enforcement should not be a selective process but should spread pain to everyone that disregards the property maintenance law.

When you move around as much as me . . . and I do move around quiet a bit . . . you see that some communities take more pride than others. It is understood that the same is true with employees. No matter how much people want things to get done, if the employee executing that function does not work to the highest standard, there could be little progress.

I have made a living out of making people work. I am, as many say, “hard to work with.” I have always taken my job seriously and expect others to do the same. One time in DuBois, I had the code enforcement guy lock himself in the men’s room and not come out for two hours to avoid me. Luckily for me, I had a book, a chair and the will to wait him out. He went in at 2:00 PM and I knew he normally leaves at 4:30 so I thought it was worth the wait.

There are occasions that the laws and the ordinances are not strong enough or lack clarity. Try to get an ordinance passed in a town not known for creating waves. People come out of the woodwork to speak against proposed legislation to further regulate property. It puts elected officials in a bad spot. People who are elected normally will listen to their constituency. There is a universal property maintenance code which can be adopted in total, but many times that code has portions of it that do not quite fit the locale. It is a good starting point.

The community perspective demands that everything looks and is nice with each housing unit. You may have had the experience of looking to rent and going into some of the places and saying, “this is a dump I would never live there.” Some people do not have the luxury of turning down a “dump” because of cost, and there are those who have a lifestyle that is not impacted by the place being a “dump.”

This means that a substandard property is sometimes paired with a less than stellar tenant. This is a bad combination. People with sanitation issues make a run down property look worse. Working in East Baltimore I had an area that had a significant number of properties that were bad pairings. The code people in Baltimore were very professional and they always responded to complaints from the Neighborhood Housing Service.

There were problems communicating with some of the landlords who took a classic slumlord stance . . . do nothing when asked about the condition of the building. We used code violations to convince the owner to sell the house, sometimes to the tenant if he or she was a good tenant. It was called a tenant conversion. I was good at it, as I did 40 of them in eight months. 

We also started a tenant-based rental corporation where the tenant group made the decisions on who rented the house. They took into consideration how long someone had lived on the block and how they kept the house. That was successful because it was at the time of ten percent mortgages (Jimmy Carter era) and many could not begin to contemplate ownership.

So, what do you do if there is a slumlord in your town that does not respond to repeated requests to clean up their act? You need to put them in the spotlight. The community group needs to make known to everyone who is causing the problems in the neighborhood. In this day in age where communication is almost instantaneous and people’s reputations can go to hell in a hand basket in less than an hour, this method seems to bear fruit.

I remember going to people’s homes in nice neighborhoods and dropping off bags of garbage on their front lawn and hanging ten with the community members hoisting placards that said the landlord was a slumlord.

Another way to address it is to go to a councilperson and protest the existence of these slum properties. Remember the people in the community are constituents too. Politicos will listen and try to do the right thing in most cases.

Primarily the community must organize and the community must be vocal. One voice with many people saying the same thing goes a long way. The result will be an increase rather than a decline in property values.