Community Improvement Services: What are they and what can they do?

by | Nov 8, 2016

Before diving into looking at how Community Improvement Services can act as a crime prevention tool and help keep residents safe, it is important to define and understand just exactly what Community Improvement Services encompass. A Community Improvement Services program consists of two separate, “traditional services”: “code enforcement” and “rental housing inspections.” Community Improvement Services is a new spin on existing services that aims to overcome the negative stigma of over-reactive code enforcement and rental inspection programs. Why do we call the artists formerly known as “code enforcement” and “rental housing inspections” Community Improvement Services? By referring to these programs with a fresh perspective, the goal is to view these traditional services in a slightly more progressive, positive, and innovative manner by demonstrating to citizens and landlords that local governments can adopt an approach that is more educational, proactive, inclusive and non-confrontational in nature as part of an effort to achieve code compliance in their community.

The primary focus of the Community Improvement Services “spin” is to instill a proactive and cooperative mindset among both citizens and landlords, and their Community Improvement Services Representatives, so that compliance can be reached at minimum cost and maximum benefit to the community. Community Improvement Services Representatives, more commonly known as “Code Enforcement Officers” and “Rental Housing Inspectors,” understand the importance of coordination with residents, staff, and other departments; and have the ability to exercise an appropriate level of professional judgment in resolving issues.

The switch to Community Improvement Services is crucial because as it currently sits today, the mere utterance of “code enforcement” among many citizens often evokes the image of a grumpy, old officer unapologetically ticketing unsuspecting residents because their lawn was half an inch too tall. This can sometimes lead to unhappy residents because generally speaking, no one wants a representative at their front door informing them complaints have been reported about the appearance of their property. However, looking at this service in a different light and under the guise of Community Improvement Services helps foster cooperation and education to ensure code compliant neighborhoods. This in turn, works to improve the safety and livability for residents.

Community Improvement Services is a unique department in that it acts as a form of mediation between complainants and alleged violators. Typically, Community Improvement Services Representatives are not invited onto a person’s property to inspect for violations, rather they arrive after a resident files a formal complaint through the community. However, enforcing the code can be more than just requiring citizens to clean up and maintain their properties. When used correctly and voluntarily, it is a very useful tool in terms of curtailing crime prevention.

CRIME PREVENTION THROUGH “CODE ENFORCEMENT”
While complaints are typically received in regards to junk vehicles, high grass, sign violations, dilapidated properties, and other issues, an increase in foreclosures has led to a higher number of cases that are directly correlated with crime prevention. Abandoned properties often become overgrown with grass and weeds, and turned into an unsightly dumping ground. While these properties initially stand as just a nuisance and an eye sore, over time they have a tendency to attract criminals. If unattended grass reaches certain heights tall enough to block the front door and windows, there is a strong likelihood the property is vacant. Left unsecured and uncorrected, abandoned properties become a convenient harbor for potential criminals and drug users. Community Improvement Services Representatives are rarely top of mind when dealing with these issues. However, working with the police department as well as with local banks and citizens to make sure these properties are secured and maintained, helps prevent them from turning into a significant and escalating problem.

Aside from an unkempt landscape and deteriorating appearance, uncollected handbills, newspapers, and pamphlets that are left on empty driveways for an extended period of time, can often act as a signal that the property is empty, either the resident is on vacation or the property is vacant. Both scenarios give the impression that no one is home, making it a possible target for an easy break-in. It is important that as part of the program and services, Community Improvement Services Representatives frequently stress the significance of preventing undesired handbills and newspapers from piling up on driveways and porches. Following an action as simple as this, is a powerful yet often overlooked method of crime prevention with residential properties.

WHAT ABOUT RENTAL PROPERTIES?
Community Improvement Services also incorporates rental housing registration and inspections. It ensures that tenants and landlords both benefit from a well-executed program. Typically a branch or individual from the local Police Department can work with a Community Improvement Services Representative to conduct “apartment sweeps.” During these sweeps, the representatives work with the Fire and Police Department, as well as the Building Department, in an effort to make the apartments safer and more code compliant. If during the sweep, Community Improvement Services Representatives discover any red flags, they can move forward with distributing notices to make the appropriate corrections or repairs to keep the tenants and neighbors safe.

It’s no secret that rental units can oftentimes be subjected to on-going neglect. As the blight and potential hazards build, and the concerns go uncorrected, the chance of a crime or accident occurring greatly increases. Rental Housing Programs, while a separate function or entity from traditional code enforcement, operate in a similar fashion under the Community Improvement Services umbrella. They both address potential safety hazards using the International Property Maintenance Code, applicable local ordinances, and housing quality standards as a guide. They help to proactively ensure tenant safety and keep landlords accountable for the living environment they provide. Community Improvement Services Representatives are also trained and experienced as rental housing inspectors. These representatives are tasked with ensuring property protection and identifying livability issues to keep tenants in their community safe.

COLLABORATION IN SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY
Traveling around from community to community, it is evident from the physical condition of several properties, even to the untrained eye, which communities do not have an active Community Improvement Services program in place. As much as some citizens would rather not see Community Improvement Services Representatives in their neighborhood, it’s important that local government leaders realize the importance of their presence in a jurisdiction as an effective form of blight and crime prevention. Oftentimes, the police and fire departments come to mind first when thinking about safety and protection for residents, and rightfully so; however, it is also important to work together and look outside the box for alternative ways to leverage Community Improvement Services programs to improve property values, enhance the quality of life, and protect residents.

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