In the sea of COVID-19 uncertainty, there are a few neighborhood-level realities we know for sure. Our neighbor’s financial constraints may postpone planned repairs – like fixing that damaged roof that’s in danger of collapsing; the tenants in the 3-flat at the corner of the block could face eviction, due to job loss and inability to pay rent; the corner diner’s plummet in sales could make their business unsustainable, forcing them to close their doors indefinitely, leaving the property vacant.
These impacts on the people and properties in our communities reflect an important deeper fact: the decisions local governments make over the next 12 months will be critical for residents and communities for years to come.
Local Governments Should Think Twice Before Cutting Code Enforcement
At Community Progress, we recently outlined six important interventions local governments should be thinking about now to minimize neighborhood decline. We’ve also shared this important warning of the significant negative drawbacks of selling property tax debt. We also recognize that local governments are anticipating staggering budget shortfalls, while the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis’ impact remains unknown. What we do know is that the decisions made today will carry generations of weight for our neighborhoods and main streets.
As local governments face tough decisions today, it’s important to remember why code enforcement exists.
Code enforcement is one of a number of tools used by local governments to support the health, safety, and economic well-being of a community’s most valuable assets – its residents.
Housing and building code enforcement officers, those individuals who inspect buildings for health and safety, are responsible for responding to immediate and critical community needs. However, code enforcement is a much broader system supported by a wide range of local government actors – from department and division managers to city attorneys to hearing officers and judges, among others. They are collectively charged with finding ways to enable property owners to comply with necessary building and housing standards.
The current crisis is exacerbating existing pressures on these collaborators and local governments and generating new pressures on residents. Together, they create an environment that suggests local governments must adjust their code enforcement responses in ways that provide for long-term community health.
Here are three code enforcement responses local governments should prioritize now to mitigate the anticipated damaging effects of this crisis.
Response #1: Adapt Responses to Deferred Property Maintenance
Decisions to invest in property repairs are economic and this crisis will, without a doubt, impact property owners’ ability and willingness to make necessary repairs.
Due to stay-at-home orders, in-person real estate showings in some cities have all but ground to a halt, and the numbers of home sales are already declining. We do not yet know the long-term impacts on real estate markets or how lending institutions will respond. Similarly, owners may be cautious to invest in their properties due to uncertainties in real estate market outlooks. They may decide to shift monies to savings in preparation for another crisis or shift them toward significant personal financial impacts due to job loss. They may also lack the cash or credit to make repairs.
The economic impacts of this crisis will exacerbate existing challenges in our most vulnerable communities. For decades in this country, communities of color have experienced disinvestment, predatory lending practices, and racist land-use policies. Neighborhoods today are still ravaged by vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties because of the practices of redlining in the 1930s and 1940s, excluding black neighborhoods from accessing capital.
Local governments’ efforts to address the impact of the crisis should acknowledge these historic inequities and economic realities, be intentional about breaking patterns of unfairness, and focus on supporting equitable responsive measures to address deferred property maintenance.
Code enforcement officers should continue to monitor deferred maintenance challenges, but also consider three questions when designing responses:
- Is the owner experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19, affecting their ability to comply?
- Are current state and local stay-at-home orders creating inabilities in obtaining materials or causing delays in getting contractors to perform necessary work?
- Are there other resources or organizations available to assist the owner with necessary repairs?
Citing property owners with court summonses, excessive fines, or widespread tickets for code violations – when personal and institutional financing is not available – will not be an effective, efficient or equitable response. Those traditional code enforcement tactics should be reserved for the properties and owners that have willfully neglected their responsibilities and have caused significant harm to the community prior to this crisis or are using the economic downturn as an opportunity to engage in speculative behavior.
As an alternative, code enforcement can and should be making connections now to develop comprehensive response systems that connect property owners to available resources and support networks. By forging and fortifying relationships to respond with resident support, as an alternative to citations, code enforcement programs can galvanize local, regional and statewide resources, such as health and human service departments, community development corporations, CDFIs, and home repair providers to help mitigate decline during these trying times.
Response #2: Increase Communication with Renters and Landlords
While eviction moratoriums are important tools to keep families in their homes – particularly during this unprecedented health crisis – rents are still due and owing.
While almost half of the country’s 40 million renters were already cost-burdened before this crisis, new financial pressures and uncertainty are impacting renters as well as mom-and-pop and nonprofit landlords.
When these moratoriums end, what happens when renters can’t pay their rent arrears, let alone their next month’s rent, and landlords need the resources?
Communities should act now to connect with landlords and tenants to understand what comes next as eviction moratoriums expire. From preventing evictions to filling vacancies during market uncertainty, the faster local governments can learn of the challenges facing residents and property owners, the better positioned they will be for an equitable response.
Tips for Connecting with Landlords
Code enforcement officers are often local government’s first point of contact when issues arise between landlords and tenants, either because of required inspections or maintenance issues at the properties. Local governments should be thinking about how to leverage these interactions to address challenges to prevent evictions and proactively communicate those strategies with landlords.
Many cities have databases with landlord, and sometimes tenant, contact information through existing rental registries and licensing programs. Local governments can use these databases to gain an understanding of the scope and depth of challenges that lie ahead by connecting directly with landlords.
In addition, local governments can leverage organizations focused on landlord-tenant relationships to gain insights into the scope and depth of challenges including local landlord associations, community mediation programs, legal aid services, and realtors
Response #3: Track Residential and Commercial Vacancies
The factors contributing to the COVID-19 crisis create a situation that is ripe for increases in vacant properties. Vacant properties ultimately cost municipalities more in the long term and further neighborhood decline.
Whether through required property inspections or maintenance responses, code enforcement systems can be an early and important source for data to predict and help mitigate costly vacancy issues.
Code enforcement can collect relevant parcel-level data that is critical for specific property interventions but can be aggregated to track trends in neighborhood decline. Communities that have a documented inventory of existing vacant and abandoned properties, through code enforcement records, utility information, parcel surveys or ordinances requiring registration of vacant and/or foreclosed properties, will be better positioned to see the economic impacts of the crisis and develop proactive responses.
Code enforcement systems should monitor delinquencies and foreclosures that may occur directly following the expirations of foreclosure moratoriums and in the months and years to come. Code enforcement should identify and hold lenders accountable for the conditions of foreclosed properties. They should also monitor property abandonment by landlords, who may walk away from properties that are no longer producing adequate rental revenue.
Local governments should coordinate across departments and agencies like code enforcement, community and economic development, property tax enforcement, land banks, and others, to prioritize interventions on vacant properties and communicate those priorities with community residents. This includes working closing with property tax foreclosure systems in communities to triage those properties that are long-term vacant from those property owners facing COVID-19-related financial hardships.
Code enforcement is not a new tool, nor is it a silver bullet in efforts to stabilize and revitalize communities. However, there is new urgency in deploying a code enforcement system as part of a comprehensive intervention strategy for communities dealing with post-COVID-19 realities.
Through equitable responses to property maintenance issues, leveraging vacancy data, communication with landlords and tenants, and leveraging critical property data, communities’ code enforcement systems can be helpful in connecting residents and neighborhoods with the resources they need. In order to implement these responses, we recognize that local governments will need additional support.
The CARES Act has provided additional federal resources for local programs, including supplemental Community Development Block Grants, Emergency Solutions Grants, and HOME Funds. But these funds will not reach all communities in need, nor are they sufficient. Now is the time to explore eligible uses for that federal funding as a mechanism to keep families stably housed and expand funding to support more local governments.
We urge local governments to look beyond “the cut” and prioritize investing in code enforcement today, before we see initial indicators of decline and before property and neighborhood conditions escalate out of our control.
Register Now for
Strategic Code Enforcement: A Critical Tool for Supporting COVID-19 Neighborhood Response
May 21st at 12:00 pm EDT
About Community Progress’ COVID-19-era Code Enforcement Working Group
Over the past ten years Community Progress has worked with local governments and their partners to strengthen code enforcement systems across the country. We’ve been a longtime advocate for, and helped to shape, code enforcement systems that are effective, efficient, and equitable
The Community Progress COVID-19-era Code Enforcement Working Group is comprised of members from our National Technical Assistance, National Leadership and Education, Michigan Initiatives, and Policy and Research teams. Together, through communications, research, and engagement with our local partners, we work to make sure local governments, residents, and non-profits collaborate to create more equitable communities.
This blog post is the first in a recurring series of code enforcement-related articles authored by members of the COVID-19 Era Code Enforcement Working Group. Please reach out to Liz Kozub if you have feedback on this blog, or if there are specific code enforcement issues (or success stories!) you would like to bring to the Working Group’s attention.