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What does equitable code enforcement look like? How Louisville is taking steps to use its code enforcement process to advance racial equity

November 30, 2022

Historic buildings boarded up in downtown Louisville

During a presentation on strategic code enforcement in Austin, Texas last winter, Phil Crowe had an epiphany. 

As executive administrator for the Louisville Metro Government’s (LMG) Codes and Regulations department, Crowe took pride in the fact that his department treated all properties with housing and building code violations the same, regardless of property owner, type, or neighborhood. The policy’s intent was to ensure fairness.  

But as he listened to the presentation, Crowe began to realize this traditional approach to code enforcement was in fact often having the exact opposite effect. Low-income homeowners would put their limited dollars to pay fines when that money could be better spent on making repairs. Meanwhile, absentee owners and unscrupulous landlords would simply ignore citations and fees altogether. In both cases, code enforcement wasn’t bringing properties into compliance.  

Crowe knew his department needed a better approach. He experienced his “aha” moment at the 2022 Vacant Property Leadership Institute (VPLI), a four-day training hosted by the Center for Community Progress and National League of Cities. Together with small delegations of local leaders from eleven other cities representing four states, Crowe and his colleagues learned and began developing new, more equitable strategies to tackle vacant, abandoned, and deteriorating properties in their community. 

When they returned from VPLI, Louisville’s delegation wasted no time applying what they learned. They gave officers more discretion to issue warnings and waive citations, shifted their strategy on vacant and abandoned properties from ineffective penalties to timely abatement, and dedicated $1 million in new home repair assistance funds to owner-occupied properties via housing and building code enforcement.  

But Louisville didn’t stop there. Louisville was one of three VPLI delegations competitively selected to receive a post-institute scholarship of up to 100 hours in technical assistance from Community Progress to help them implement lessons learned from VPLI. In line with LMG Code and Regulation Department’s racial equity goals, LMG asked Community Progress to help review its housing and building code enforcement policies and activities through a racial equity lens. 

Delegations representing five states attended our 2022 VPLI in Austin, Texas for three days of engaged learning, professional development, and cross-city workshops to share best practices. (Photo: Center for Community Progress)

Community Progress worked closely with LMG to craft a one-day workshop for staff from Codes and Regulations and other key LMG departments to build a common understanding of how racist policies have affected Louisville’s communities of color and identify strategies to advance racial equity and mitigate unintended consequences. 

Our resulting memo “Louisville, Kentucky: A Racial Audit of Louisville’s Code Enforcement Program” incorporated strategies Code and Regulations staff identified, as well as recommendations based on our review of LMG’s ordinances, policies, procedures, stakeholder interviews, and national best practices, including:  

  • Leveraging existing data and seeking resident input to define code enforcement priorities and develop strategies to address specific subsets of properties, 
  • For vacant properties, working with other LMG departments to explore ways to increase LMG’s capacity to conduct code lien foreclosures to reduce the harm these properties impose on neighborhoods and compel their transfer to new, more responsible owners; and 
  • Working with the Office of Equity and the Office of Management and Budget to ensure within LMG, code enforcement success is not based on fines collected, but property compliance achieved. 

It’s been less than a year since Phil Crowe’s epiphany at VPLI, but in that time, Louisville has made significant strides to create a more strategic, equitable code enforcement process and has drawn local media attention for its efforts. Louisville’s journey and the resources the local government used along the way can serve as a model for other communities. 

Phil Crowe (middle, wearing a white mask) listens to a presentation on tax law by Community Progress’ Senior Fellow Frank Alexander at the 2022 Vacant Property Leadership Institute, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Center for Community Progress)

Community Progress will host the next Vacant Property Leadership Institute in 2023. If your community is interested in attending or more information, please contact Justin Godard ([email protected]) or join our email list for updates.  

Learn more at our Strategic Code Enforcement online resource page, and contact us to find out how Community Progress can help your community assess its housing and building code enforcement process. 

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