Cracking Code Enforcement: How Cities Approach Housing Standards

Research & Policy | August 25th 2021 |

Broken Windows

Code enforcement is a vital piece of effective housing policy, playing a role in both residents’ health and safety and in the cost of providing and maintaining housing. Local code enforcement agencies generally enforce residential dwelling standards contained in both housing codes, which cover safety and quality standards for dwelling units, among other tenant protections and building codes, which cover the construction and maintenance of the physical structures more broadly. In a new policy brief, Cracking Code Enforcement: How Cities Approach Housing Standards, Sophie House of the NYU Furman Center’s Housing Solutions Lab explores how code enforcement and compliance are handled in different jurisdictions. 

Through analysis of 40 different cities of varying sizes and geography, as well as communication with stakeholder groups in local government, research, and affordable housing provision, the brief explores three different dimensions that shape code enforcement: a regime’s relative emphasis on neighborhood quality or individual tenant protections; use of proactive or reactive enforcement mechanisms; and reliance on collaborative or punitive engagement. 

Neighborhood Quality and Individual Tenant Protections

Housing and building codes vary in their relative focus on conditions at the individual unit or neighborhood level. The tenants’ rights movement of the 1970s brought an elevated focus to the conditions and habitability within individual dwelling units. Demonstrating the link between tenant environments and health ailments, such as asthma and lead poisoning, brought greater attention to conditions within buildings. By contrast, code enforcement efforts that target “blight,” or disinvestment and neighborhood conditions, aim to improve neighborhood safety, property values, or both. Such efforts usually target vacant lots, abandoned buildings, environmental contamination, and houses in derelict or dangerous conditions. 

Proactive and Reactive Enforcement

Code enforcement regimes also vary in how proactively or reactively they address violations.  Reactive code enforcement mechanisms generally rely on the complaints of tenants and neighborhood residents through systems such as ‘311’. Reactive enforcement provides a channel for people to address their concerns and for enforcement agencies to discover hazards that they otherwise would not have. Furthermore, reactive enforcement can be more efficient than proactive enforcement as it allows for agencies to focus on active violations instead of relying on random inspections. 

However, reactive enforcement is not without its shortcomings. Predominantly reactive systems assume that the most urgent violations will generate complaints; however, research suggests that wealthier, white residents are more likely to do so. In contrast, research supports that marginalized communities who may not be familiar with their rights, are unsure of how to file a complaint, or are wary of law enforcement/government intervention are less likely to file complaints. Furthermore, individuals living in illegal structures may not file complaints in fear of displacement or eviction. Proactive code enforcement mechanisms can help cities address the concerns associated with reactive systems. 

Proactive enforcement utilizes systematic and planned inspections instead of responding to complaints. This can help to address existing power imbalances by not relying solely on tenant assertiveness and by addressing violations before they become too severe. However, proactive systems have their shortcomings as well. Proactive systems are typically more costly and difficult to administer, and may bring an increased enforcement presence to communities where government intervention can have harmful and unintended consequences. One such consequence could be the closure of low-cost housing in areas where affordable housing is scarce. Jurisdictions generally use a blend of these two systems to balance equity and efficiency concerns.

Cooperative and Punitive Enforcement

For code enforcement to be successful, landlord compliance is crucial. Through a system of “carrots” and “sticks,” cities can achieve this compliance through a balance of cooperation, incentives, and punitive penalties. Carrot approaches include but are not limited to direct subsidies to landlords, tax incentives, and discounts for municipal fees. Some of the carrot approaches involve a good deal of cooperation between landlords and local governments. Training programs, self-certifiable compliance codes, and cost-sharing programs are all methods that cities can use to help achieve successful code enforcement through cooperation with landlords. 

Unfortunately, not all landlords are motivated to comply with housing and building codes, so punitive measures—or “sticks”—are necessary. Punitive mechanisms can include fines for code violations, annual or per-inspection fees, and even criminal prosecution in certain cities. Cities must find a balance between “carrots and sticks” as monetary punitive punishments can be shifted towards tenants.

When cities are formulating their code enforcement regimes, they need to consider these tradeoffs and many more to ensure that their programs are effective, efficient, and equitable. Depending on a city’s size and location, code enforcement strategies will have to be adjusted to find a system that works best for their jurisdiction and constituents. The policy brief, Cracking Code Enforcement: How Cities Approach Housing Standards, provides a detailed in-depth look at how cities of different sizes and geography practice code enforcement. It analyzes how different code enforcement regimes define and classify code violations, trigger inspections, and balance carrots and sticks to achieve compliance. 

Read the full policy brief here. 

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