Report Outlines Approaches to Housing Code Enforcement

A brief from the NYU Furman Center, “Cracking Code Enforcement: How Cities Approach Housing Standards,” analyzes how housing code enforcement policies across the country vary. The paper explores how much policies emphasize neighborhood blight or tenants’ well-being, whether they rely on proactive or reactive triggers for inspection and enforcement, and whether they take more cooperative or more punitive approaches to landlord compliance. In examining 40 local housing codes, the author found that no single code enforcement regime operates entirely at one end of these three policy spectrums.

The author gathered information on various aspects of housing code enforcement by reading local housing codes and examining agency websites from 40 cities with diverse population sizes and geographies. The research was supplemented by conversations with key stakeholders from local government, research, and affordable housing provision.

According to the brief’s categorization, code enforcement regimes divide their focus between neighborhood blight and hazardous conditions for individual households. Regimes that target blight put more emphasis on neighborhood conditions, abandoned buildings, and external displays of disorder. Regimes that focus on tenants’ rights focus on the link between substandard housing and health risks, which would lead to different priorities like attention to lead poisoning or asthma.

Code enforcement regimes can be reactive (responding to complaints) or proactive (systematically inspecting housing). The brief reports that proactive inspection policies vary. Some jurisdictions have laws permitting code enforcement officials to inspect under reasonable cause, to adjust inspection frequency depending on how many violations were found during a unit’s last inspection, or to subject units to random inspections. The most straightforward approach would be to inspect every unit on a uniform schedule, but the author acknowledges most municipalities do not have the resources for this approach. Disadvantages exist for both reactive and proactive approaches. Often, reactive enforcement favors those most likely to make complaints, while proactive enforcement may put those with unstable housing at risk of displacement.

Finally, local jurisdictions can take cooperative or punitive approaches to induce landlord compliance. Cooperative approaches include compliance models which help income-eligible landlords with repairs and mandatory training programs to inform landlords of the responsibilities the code imposes on them. Evidence suggests that early communication with landlords can effectively boost compliance and reduce the administrative burden on cities. The author found that code provisions that nominally punish landlords can inadvertently end up burdening tenants.

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