Cracking Code Enforcement: How Cities Approach Housing Standards

Code enforcement plays a vital role in housing policy, affecting both residents' health and safety and the cost of providing and maintaining housing. Housing codes cover the safety and quality standards for individual dwelling units and, in many cases, provide other tenant protections, while building codes govern the construction and maintenance of all physical structures more broadly. Most cities enforce these through a single code enforcement department. Examining how cities write and enforce their housing codes can offer important insights into their priorities. Moreover, the goals and mechanisms of code enforcement have been vigorously debated, with stakeholders from a wide range of perspectives opining on how code enforcement agencies can best meet the needs of tenants and landlords while avoiding adverse or unintended consequences.

This brief contributes to scholarly and policy debates on code enforcement. The authors identify three key dimensions along which code enforcement regimes vary: their relative emphasis on hazards in individual housing units or neighborhood blight; reliance on proactive or reactive triggers for inspection and enforcement; and more cooperative or more punitive approaches to landlord compliance. They contextualize this variation within the scholarly literature on code enforcement and, drawing from an analysis of forty cities’ code enforcement regimes as well as conversations with key stakeholders, explore how these priorities and approaches are reflected in local governments’ actual code enforcement regimes.