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Madison Gharghoury, Development Associate and Special Assistant to the President/CEO

Reevaluating Code Enforcement

A New Approach to Addressing Problem Properties

Published: February 2024


Ready to reevaluate your code enforcement system? Apply today for one of our technical assistance scholarships for local governments inspired to shift from a traditional code enforcement approach to a strategic code compliance approach to help address vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties. Applications are being reviewed on a rolling basis beginning April 1, 2024. The application window will be closed May 31, 2024, or when scholarship funding has been exhausted, whichever is soonest. Learn More »

Since 2010, the Center for Community Progress has worked with local partners to uncover and disrupt the systems, policies, and practices that perpetuate property vacancy and deterioration. When implemented, these solutions help achieve equitable development, inclusive neighborhoods, and resilient communities. Our work includes partnering with local governments to rethink the role of code enforcement as part of their comprehensive approach to addressing problem properties.

This publication demonstrates the benefits of shifting from traditional code enforcement to the more strategic approach of code compliance. We aim to inspire readers to make or advocate for a shift from a punitive to a compliance-oriented approach within their own communities. Throughout this publication, we provide guidance on how such a shift can be applied to common problem property types and examples from the national field of practice.

While we focus on strategies to address vacant properties, we also include brief chapters on policies and programs for occupied properties. This is because code enforcement is one of a government’s most important tools to stabilize and strengthen neighborhoods. Upstream interventions that compel routine property maintenance protect the health and safety of occupants. Public attention and investment in neighborhoods struggling with deferred maintenance or a rising number of vacant properties may also help to shift the mindset of property owners who would otherwise allow their property to decline or abandon it altogether.

This publication focuses primarily on the challenges in neighborhoods with stagnant or weak real estate markets, households with limited resources, and high vacancy rates. These are the places where the limitations of traditional code enforcement become most evident and where new approaches to vacancy and abandonment are needed most.

We encourage local government staff, elected leaders, residents, community-based organizations, statewide policymakers, and others interested in preventing and addressing vacant properties to use this publication and other Community Progress resources to further their efforts.

The Limitations of Traditional Code Enforcement and the Shift to Strategic Code Compliance

Traditionally, most local governments have relied on complaints to identify violations, and civil and criminal penalties to enforce local property maintenance ordinances. This approach may be effective in stable or strong real estate markets and when owners have the resources to make repairs. However, in weak real estate markets and when owners lack the resources to make repairs, this approach is often inequitable, inefficient, and ineffective.

Under a strategic code compliance approach, local governments would:

  • View code compliance as a key neighborhood stabilization tool and essential service that protects and strengthens community health and safety;
  • Adequately fund code compliance efforts;
  • Embed partnerships and collaboration in code compliance efforts;
  • Align the municipality’s human resources policies, practices, and work culture with this new framework.

To shift to such an approach, local governments should:

  • Use parcel, market, and social data to inform proactive actions and strategic allocation of resources;
  • Adopt policies and practices informed by data that recognize properties and owners can and should be treated differently;
  • Track and evaluate outcomes and make adjustments as needed—with a commitment to transparency and communication;
  • Break out of the silos and collaborate across departments and sectors;
  • Make broad changes within the department and local government to support a culture of code compliance; and,
  • Make equity both a core principle and a desired outcome.

Applying Strategic Code Compliance to Common Problem Property Types

A key element of strategic code compliance is developing different strategies for different property types. In the second half of this publication, we highlight strategies local governments can use to bring three common types of problem properties—vacant properties, rental housing, and owner-occupied housing—into compliance. Each chapter focuses on the most equitable, efficient, and effective policy for that problem property type and how the key elements of strategic code compliance figure into design, implementation, and evaluation.

Vacant Properties

A strategic code compliance approach to vacant properties focuses on quickly reducing the harms these properties cause, recouping public expenses to maintain these properties, and, where necessary, compelling the transfer of these properties to new, more responsible ownership. We call this approach “Fix it Up, Pay it Up, Give it Up”:

  • Fix it Up means giving owners notice of the problem and the chance to achieve compliance. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to provide a willing but resource-limited owner with the support needed to bring the property into compliance.
  • Pay it Up means that if an owner is unresponsive to violation notices and unwilling to fix the property, the local government will take responsibility for reducing the harm caused by the property. The local government may quickly secure, maintain, and, where necessary, demolish the property, and then place a priority lien against the property for the full costs of these activities.
  • Give it Up means, as a last resort, if the owner refuses to reimburse the local government for the tax dollars used to reduce the harms caused by the property, the local government will take action to compel the transfer of the vacant, harmful property to new ownership, which may include temporary public stewardship. The specific mechanisms local governments can use to compel the transfer of vacant properties to new owners vary based on state law and include legal tools such as receivership, abandonment procedures, property tax foreclosure, and code lien foreclosure. In weak real estate markets, well-designed property tax or priority code lien foreclosure systems are the most equitable, efficient, and effective way to compel transfer of vacant and abandoned properties.

Local governments should also develop specific strategies to address three common vacant property types: heirs’ properties, “zombie” and bank-owned properties, and commercial properties.

Rental Housing

A strategic code compliance approach to rental housing centers around the creation of a proactive rental inspection and licensing program designed to ensure local governments can regularly inspect rental property conditions, incentivize and reward responsible ownership, and reduce tenant displacement. A sustained approach to maintaining rental units’ code compliance not only protect the health and safety of tenants, but also helps stabilize neighborhoods by reducing the likelihood of eventual deterioration and abandonment.

Owner-Occupied Housing

A strategic code compliance approach to owner-occupied housing focuses on designing programs, resources, and partnerships that help low-income homeowners bring their properties into compliance. Code compliance programs for owner-occupied housing help homeowners avoid penalties like citations, fines, and court actions except in those situations where they may be warranted to protect the health and safety of the occupant or neighbor. Such penalties are often ineffective against low-income homeowners, who may lack the resources or ability to bring their properties into compliance. We call such programs, resources, and partnerships “equitable offramps.”

Code enforcement reform is key to addressing vacant properties and safer, healthier neighborhoods. Don’t know where to start? We’re here to help.

Contact the Center for Community Progress at [email protected] for customized, expert guidance and training to help your community.

Published: February 2024


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