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What is Code Enforcement?

March 6, 2024

Man taking a photo of an abandoned boarded up home

Vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties—referred to by some as “blighted” properties—harm neighbors and neighborhoods. Addressing these properties is hard, especially when they exist in a community at a large scale. But when property conditions harm its occupants, or the property’s deterioration threatens the safety of neighbors or the stability of the neighborhood, local governments need tools to step in.

What can local government do to address vacant and “blighted” properties? The answer, in part, lies in leveraging tools like code enforcement. This blog post explains how code enforcement works, and why local governments should take a more strategic approach to code enforcement to make the most of a tool that can not only protect public health and safety, but also stabilize and strengthen neighborhoods.

What is code enforcement?

“Code enforcement” refers to the process local governments use to enforce state and local laws, codes, or ordinances pertaining to housing, building, or health standards.

Community Progress uses “code enforcement” to refer more specifically to the process local governments use to enforce property maintenance standards on existing buildings and properties. These include codes such as the International Code Council’s International Property Maintenance Code, other locally adopted property maintenance codes, and various ordinances regulating nuisances or other harmful conditions on properties, like high weeds and grass or trash and debris.

A sign with numerous code enforcement violations staked in the middle of an overgrown vacant lot. Photo: Center for Community Progress

What do code enforcement departments do?

Most local governments use a “traditional” code enforcement approach. The specifics vary from place to place, but generally it goes something like this:

  1. An individual files a code enforcement complaint about a property (such as a falling gutter, overgrown weeds, or an unsecured vacant building) to the local government.
  2. The code enforcement inspector investigates the complaint and issues a citation to the property owner (posting the violation on the door and mailing it to the owner, for example) with the threat of a fine or civil/criminal penalties if the owner doesn’t address the problem in a specified time. Sometimes this citation gets responsible owners—who have the resources to fix the problem—to bring their property into compliance.
  3. If an owner is unable or unwilling to comply, the local government brings civil or criminal penalties against the owner, often in court. But if they can’t track down the property owner—like in the case of vacant properties owned by out-of-state investors or individual limited liability corporations (LLCs)—fines, citations, and court summons keep piling up. All the while, the violation hasn’t actually been addressed and the situation on the property keeps getting worse.

Local governments using a traditional approach often treat all code violations the same, regardless of factors like neighborhood market strength, property type, whether the property is vacant or occupied, and whether those occupants are owners or tenants.

Does code enforcement work?

Threatening property owners with civil or criminal penalties can persuade those who have the resources to fix the issue that led to the complaint. However, traditional code enforcement is less effective in neighborhoods with weak real estate markets that have experienced a legacy of disinvestment.

Why is traditional code enforcement often ineffective?

  • Low-income homeowners often don’t have the resources to make repairs. Fining low-income owners only makes it less likely that they will have the money to bring their properties into compliance and could ultimately result in them losing their homes, disrupting their housing stability, and creating another vacant property for the municipality to deal with.
  • Corporate and out-of-state property owners are difficult to penalize. Placing properties in LLCs and other forms of corporate ownership allows owners to shield themselves from civil and criminal liabilities. These ownership structures make it harder for local governments to even find a property owner, let alone serve them a citation or court summons.
  • The cost of repairs may exceed the value of the property. A property owner in a weak real estate market may opt to pay the fine or choose to walk away from the property entirely rather than make costly repairs.  
  • Relying on complaints rarely directs resources to the neighborhoods that need them most. In neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment, residents may simply have gotten used to the nuisances and deterioration or have given up reporting issues because past complaints were ignored.
  • Tenants might not report code violations for fear of displacement. Low-income tenants who struggle to find affordable housing may be hesitant to report code violations for fear of retaliation by their landlord, or being displaced if the unit is deemed uninhabitable.
A single family home in Atlanta with a code enforcement violation pasted on the door. Photo: Center for Community Progress

What does the “best” code enforcement system look like?

Traditional code enforcement can, even at its best, can only address a specific problem on one parcel while two more pop up elsewhere. Our new resource, Reevaluating Code Enforcement: A New Approach to Addressing Problem Properties talks about shifting from traditional code enforcement—a reactive, punitive-centric approach that treats all properties the same—to strategic code compliance.

Code compliance is a more strategic approach to code enforcement that recognizes different owners have different incentives (and abilities) to bring their properties into compliance. Strategic code compliance emphasizes:

  • Using parcel, market, and social data to take proactive actions and allocate resources where they’re needed most
  • Collaborating deeply across departments and with community nonprofits and resources to help owners achieve compliance
  • Resolving issues on vacant properties to reduce the harm to neighbors and neighborhoods
  • Preventing tenant and owner-occupant displacement
  • Making equity both a core principle and a desired outcome

Making these policy and practice changes isn’t easy. In Reevaluating Code Enforcement, we talk more about the limitations of traditional code enforcement and describe policies and practices local governments can pursue for three common property types: vacant properties, deteriorated rental housing, and deteriorated owner-occupied housing. Learn more and get examples of cities practicing “good” code enforcement: Click here to download Reevaluating Code Enforcement »

Ready to reevaluate your code enforcement system? The Center for Community Progress provides customized, expert guidance to state and local governments to assess the state of vacancy in your community and recommend policy and practice solutions for equitable neighborhood revitalization. Contact us at [email protected] to learn more!

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