A complaint-driven housing policy isn't enough to save our neighborhoods

Few places have as much potential for attracting residents as the racially and culturally vibrant Heights suburbs east of Cleveland. Yet, like most aging suburban communities, these suburbs are confronting the residue of disruptive, predatory home sales and financing practices along with persistent middle-income wage stagnation. Although recovery is evident in many upscale neighborhoods, reported data shows most neighborhoods still face dire realities.

These realities pose a serious threat to housing quality and neighborhood sustainability. Increasing code compliance failures tend to normalize more negligence, abandonment and distress, leading to lower housing values, more absentee-investor home ownership, and property tax base erosion. Communities cannot afford to stand by and watch their most affordable housing stock turn into solid waste. Virtually all candidates for municipal office in the Heights said so in their 2016 election campaigns.

But preventing and addressing neighborhood blight is beyond the capacity of municipal authorities alone. Code enforcement by itself is essential, but is not sufficient now for keeping neighborhoods healthy. Traditional housing maintenance policing that starts with complaints about individual properties—the whack-a-mole approach—is not working.

We need strategic code compliancea collaborative, data-driven, communitywide commitment to organize fragmented components into coordinated systems of code-compliance policies, practices and programs. Detecting trends and breakdowns early, in order to respond with compliance solutions quickly, is a distinctive feature of this process. Some cities already have improved individual departments, code policies and programs. However, those isolated improvements are rarely coordinated in a collaborative system connecting bureaucratic silos and community organizations concerned with residential property across jurisdictional boundaries.       

Coordinating the work of institutions and code enforcement professionals requires access to reliable and credible data sources. Sharing knowledge is itself a means of coordination—between policy makers and policy administrators, as well as between various public and public-interest partners. An integrated web-based facility that curates all available information about real property parcels is essential for managing code compliance strategically.  

Fortunately, information technology provides new processes and devices that produce more and better information faster. Getting them to work well together is the trick. Although technology can be expensive to maintain and requires special skills—and convincing various government agencies to collaborate on obtaining and sharing information can be difficult—it is essential to do so now.

The Vacant Abandoned Property Action Council (VAPAC) is a 13-year-old gathering of community development practitioners and public officials that does just that. VAPAC members rely on data from the NEO CANDO website at the Case Western Reserve University Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, along with information gathered by neighborhood organizations. The group examines code compliance in the context of the full range of data relative to residential property maintenance to facilitate trend analysis and the consideration of causal factors that enable strategic thinking and planning. Suburbs need to do more of this.

Organized and sustained community action is an essential ingredient for strategic code compliance to work well. Neighborhood and community organizations need to develop competency in order to work alongside municipal enforcement agencies to obtain more voluntary compliance. They can often see emerging neighborhood problems before those problems rise to a crisis level. They can operate programs designed to inform homeowners and assist in violation prevention, property maintenance and repair. They can conduct studies, share information, advocate constructively and appear in court to provide evidence. Residents, after all, are those with the greatest stake in compliance with home safety and neighborhood quality of life regulations. They must be ready and competent to act accordingly.

Strategic code compliance is a community-based approach to smarter, more effective code compliance that joins government and non-government actors into a coherent system for creating just and sustainable neighborhoods now and in the future.

Kermit Lind

Kermit Lind is a Cleveland Heights resident and clinical professor of law emeritus at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. To view some of his many publications on topics, such as urban community development, law and public policy, residential neighborhood preservation, and nuisance abatement policies and practices, visit https://works.bepress.com/kermit_lind/.

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Volume 11, Issue 8, Posted 1:32 PM, 07.31.2018