How to Bring Problem Properties Back to Productive Use

Effective, strategic code enforcement can help communities revitalize vacant properties, raise property values and improve the local economy.
Vacant, boarded up house.

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Code enforcement that focuses on efficiency and results, emphasizes proactive education, and centers on equity can help communities reactivate vacant problem properties and repair substandard occupied properties while protecting vulnerable residents, said Karen Black, CEO of May 8 Consulting, a social impact consulting firm. Black spoke at a National Association of REALTORS® webinar called “Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Code Enforcement Strategies,” the fourth session in NAR’s Policy, Practice, Process: Transforming Neighborhoods through Equitable Revitalization series.

Property condition is critical to community and housing market health, said Black. Reactivating a vacant residential or rental property can provide a wealth of benefits for a neighborhood, she stated, such as reducing crime, improving the health of residents, raising neighborhood property values, and increasing tax revenue for the city and the area school districts. Repairing subpar properties that are currently occupied can provide equally impressive benefits, Black added, such as preserving housing stock, improving neighborhood resilience, and allowing seniors to age in place. In addition, she said both strategies can lead to economic growth and the creation of jobs.

“There is evidence that supporting minimum vacant building standards can trigger new investment,” said Black.

Housing and building code enforcement, if properly applied, can bring those problem properties into compliance, promote community stability and confidence, and create healthier spaces to live and work, Black said. And the goal is to bring an owner that is in violation into compliance with as simple a process as possible. “We want to cause the owner to comply with the least amount of intervention,” she said. “We want them to go from ‘I’m going to ignore you’ to ‘I’d like to comply, but I could use a little help.’”

According to Black, effective code enforcement should focus on four principles:

1. Equity

  • Code enforcement should recognize different types of owners and properties.
  • It should advance strategies that address social and economic inequities rather than enforce the status quo.
  • It should assist vulnerable owners who can’t make repairs.

2. Effectiveness

  • Code enforcement should identify vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated residential and rental properties.
  • It should proactively enforce standards.
  • It should use data to track and monitor outcomes.

3. Efficiency

  • Code enforcement should inspect rental properties proactively.
  • It should notify owners of the standards to be met.
  • It should target willful neglect of properties.
  • It should reward good landlords.

4. Education

  • Code enforcement should work proactively to provide learning opportunities that create culture change.
  • It should provide clear information in letters and violation notices.
  • It should develop community partnerships based on shared goals.

Assisting vulnerable owners who are unable to make repairs is of critical importance in bringing properties into compliance, said Black, noting that low- and moderate-income homeowners are more likely to be denied home improvement loans than their wealthier counterparts. Communities of color are disproportionately affected, Black added, pointing to Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data that shows that neighborhoods of color receive only 15% of home improvement loans nationally. The solution, Black stated, includes grants, no- or low-interest loans, forgivable or deferred loans, and weatherization and energy programs. Similar programs, Black noted, can be extended to struggling mom and pop landlords.

“We want all owners to contribute to a healthy community,” said Black. “Sometimes they just need a little help.”

Additional resources on code enforcement can be found at the REALTOR® Party website.