CODE ENFORCEMENT OR CODE COMPLIANCE?
Older neighborhoods especially need to rely on code enforcement to make sure that buildings are maintained sufficiently to keep up property values and also to keep pace with new technologies and safety research.
While property owners often think that the way they take care of their property is their own business, the major impact that neighboring properties have on one another’s value and enjoyment means that building maintenance and safety becomes the business of everyone in the neighborhood.
When you hear someone loosely talking about code violations and why the city isn’t enforcing the codes, the first question to ask yourself as a neighborhood leader is whether your town actually has adopted by ordinance a code that would cover the offending situation.
If so, you might have a clear path toward making property owners accountable for maintaining their buildings (both the main building and any garages, storage sheds, and such). You also may have a way to deal with some ugly or inappropriate things people keep outdoors.
But if your neighbor leaves their old sofa on the porch, and you don’t like it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a code violation. Your particular code would have to speak directly to the situation. Although there’s a bit of personal judgment on the part of the inspector involved, it doesn’t stretch far. Codes do not necessarily address everything that you might find offensive aesthetically. I hope you can appreciate that what you may think is an “old sofa” might be considered a quirky porch chair by your neighbor. In the end, your local codes won’t address anything and everything you might find ugly, but they certainly help maintain a basic standard.
Types of Codes
The building code feels different from the others discussed in this section, in that it deals with the integrity of a structure from the beginning of construction.
However, we included that subject in this topic area because the origins and administrative principles are the same, even though typically a neighborhood isn’t depending on the building code to resolve community appearance and neatness issues. Note that separate plumbing, electrical, and mechanical codes pertaining largely to heating and cooling often are enacted, and in many communities all of these collectively are referred to as “the building code” in common conversation.
Those are the topics most commonly associated with code enforcement. We should note that the latter two codes fall under an umbrella term sometimes used by local governments, inspectors, activists, and property owners, who may speak of “the housing code,” even when actually there are one or more separate codes that have been adopted that are relevant to housing. Even these, however, ultimately are related to safety at least as much as to neighborhood quality.
Some communities have an energy conservation or other newer code. Nuisance ordinances governing outdoor storage, junk automobile storage, overgrown vegetation, and such may be standalone laws, or some provisions might be in the zoning ordinance.
How Code Enforcement Usually Works
If a city or county has a code, someone employed by the local government has responsibility for inspecting new construction and investigating complaints. Occasionally code enforcement is out-sourced to some consultant or sometimes nearby municipalities will share one officer, but that’s not typical.
After the enforcement officer sends a notice of violation to the property owner, usually a property owner has a short amount of time to correct the violation. If reinspection shows that the violation still exists, in the opinion of code enforcement personnel, the property owner is sent a summons to a municipal or county court. Often these hearings are somewhat informal in tone, but consist of both the code enforcement officer and the property owner having a chance to explain conditions and circumstances. The judge has punishment options at his or her disposal, generally emphasizing fines and repeated court appearances until the violation is corrected (“abated” in the jargon of the subject).
Understand that the code enforcement or building inspector aren’t usually a police officer. Some municipalities do use the police for those functions, but in larger cities, even police spotting a code violation turn the matter over to another department that handles codes.
Fire codes typically are administered and enforced by the fire department, since they tend to apply only to commercial land uses; topics related to residential fire safety are simply incorporated into relevant housing codes. Similarly, health codes are enforced on commercial property owners by the health department, and many health-related topics form part of the rationale for housing codes.
Zoning also is separately enforced in many jurisdictions; often a compliance officer is placed in the planning department.
A few progressive communities have established formal or informal systems, inside the local government or inside of a non-profit organization, to handle neighbor disagreements within a mediation framework. It’s a splendid idea, especially for recurring feuds where neighbors simply don’t get along.
What If There Is No Voluntary Compliance?
In theory fines, which often are imposed for each day that the violation continues, can continue indefinitely in a contest of wills between a property owner and the judge.
In practice, usually the property owner will give in after a while and perform minimal maintenance or even optimal maintenance, unless he or she cannot afford to do so.
Many codes provide that after a certain period of non-compliance, the city or county can perform the work and charge the property owner. If no immediate payment is forthcoming, the local government has the right to file a lien against the property. This means that when the property is sold, the local government collects its money back. Unpaid fines also may result in a lien; sometimes state law even allows imprisonment due to unpaid fines.
Some municipal or county codes, operating under state law, provide that if the owner does not pay for the local government’s work, property ownership can be transferred to the local government. Usually this provision is confined to vacant land, however, and its actual implementation is fairly rare.
Penalties may be harsher in the case of businesses or vacant land that is out of compliance. A business might lose its business license, as often fire and health violations especially are addressed to the business owner, not the property owner. Vacant land penalties may be more severe than the penalty for a comparable debris violation on a homeowner’s property.
Absentee out-of-state owners may present a particular problem, as the local government may not be able to even issue a summons. In those cases, voluntary compliance or a lien against the property are usually the only realistic options.
Special attention to what happens in low-income neighborhoods is warranted. Remembering that compliance is the goal but that some may not be able to afford compliance, it does nothing good for the neighborhood to tote up daily fines for someone who already cannot afford to make repairs. We maintain that a quality program should establish some formal partnerships either with philanthropic organizations or financial institutions that will make low-cost loans. Sometimes local governments even make forgivable loans to those who hold the property for a given number of years, if the state constitution permits. The municipality does not benefit if it forces property turnover in a neighborhood where demand is low.
Obviously positive owner reaction is more likely where property values are high, so the slow market city will have to be particularly careful to offer a well-rounded program that offers resources as well as the prospect of punishment.
A program for educating homeowners on their code responsibilities will prevent some of the most emotional conflict situations and help neighbors inclined to complain to weigh their options carefully. In any case, resident understanding of the available codes and how they are applied and enforced is important in maintaining good relationships between local government and resident.
Systematic Versus Complaint-Based Code Enforcement
Most municipalities practice only complaint-based code enforcement, largely for cost reasons. The opposite approach, called systematic code enforcement, most typically is employed when a local community determines that a particular area needs a concentrated maintenance effort to remain vital. We discuss this tool in more detail below.
The opposite of a complaint-based system is often called a systematic or methodical program. Note that a building code is methodical because inspections during new construction occur when certain items are complete and prior to their being enclosed by future phases of construction.
In some cases the block by block “systematic” program of enforcing nuisance laws, or property maintenance codes, is important. If your neighborhood is in trouble, and you feel that property owners can afford to keep up their properties, but they aren’t doing so, this is when the systematic, house-by-house program could prevent the neighborhood from moving into total decline.
The technique sometimes is called a windshield survey. This means that a code inspector or consultant drives through the neighborhood and peers through the windshield to identify apparent violations of the existing housing code or property maintenance code. They also note weeds, grass that is taller than allowed by code, fences that are falling down, abandoned unlicensed cars, animals that are not permitted under the ordinance, or other and any other potential nuisance that is spelled out in the code.
Reasons for systematic code enforcement could be:
- A relatively large number of complaints in a particular geographic area are received.
- A jurisdiction receives many complaints about aesthetics, as opposed to structural defects such as a porch that’s falling off the house. Cosmetic complaints might be about peeling paint, derelict cars, high weeds, or piles of junk left strewn about the lawn randomly.
- A neighborhood has a high percentage of rental property or a small sub-area that doesn’t measure up to the standards of other community folks.
- The potential still exists for a viable neighborhood if relatively superficial problems are remedied, or if landlords can be forced to reinvest in their properties to the extent that the community demands.