Code violations can be double-edged sword for low-income residents

Code enforcement seems like a mundane process needed to keep the city safe. A deeper look at the implications of violations in historically disinvested neighborhoods shows a more complicated practice.
Code violations can be double-edged sword for low-income residents
Illustration by Marisa Twigg

When Sundi Corner came home to find a paper pinned to her fence, she was first confused. The paper said she had violated the municipal code for being “parked on incorrect land.” Like all code violations, it included language about what would happen if she didn’t fix the issue, which included a fine and possible jail time.

Soon, Corner’s confusion turned to frustration. As chair of the South Linden Area Commission, she’s well aware of the municipal code, she said, especially as it relates to keeping vehicles on personal property. The problem was that the violation notice was wrong. Her vehicle was up to code and was parked on a concrete pad, which is acceptable. When she called code enforcement, the inspector who issued the violation admitted that the notice was wrong.

“He was kind of like, ‘Well I couldn’t see from where I was,’” she said. “But you cited me, which for me is a problem because it has all this language [about fines and jail time]. You put this on my property as a code violation, and you posted it on my fence for everyone to see, but you didn’t even do your due diligence to know that what you are stating is not even factual.”

Yet, in many ways, Corner said she thinks code enforcement can be helpful to cleaning up a neighborhood. For her, that means cleaning up Linden and holding businesses with violations accountable.

“I see a lot of code violations within my community,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. If it’s a violation, it’s a violation because we can’t say that we want to see improvement, want to see change in our community and want a healthier, better way of living life within our community and then pick and choose what we expect as far as being okay from a code violation standpoint.”

Code enforcement and the issuing of violations, on the surface, seems like a mundane procedure needed to keep the city running and safe. But a deeper look into the implications of code violations, especially for historically disinvested neighborhoods, reveals a much more complicated practice.

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What is code enforcement generally?

The 30,000-foot view of code enforcement is as simple as it sounds: officers go into the community to enforce the municipal code. The municipal code is a compilation of ordinances created in 1959 that undergirds city development, among other facets of the city. It determines what, where and how structures can be built and changed. And no detail is too small for the city code. As an example, the code dictates that residents can share a bathroom, but not for more than 10 people and a permit is required.

Any kind of property owner can receive a code violation, including homeowners who live in their property, apartment owners and businesses. Based on the type of violation, recipients have a certain period of time to fix the violation or appeal it.

If a code violation is not resolved in the timeframe given, there can be legal repercussions. For Columbus, an unresolved violation is a first-degree misdemeanor, with up to $1,000 in fines and up to 180 days in jail. But that’s not all. The City can add additional fines for continued non-compliance and costs for fixing structures if the City has to do the repairs. Even more, the City can pursue civil penalties that carry fines up to $250 a day and possible foreclosure.

The City continues to invest in code enforcement to “[make neighborhoods] safer and healthier for residents,” according to the City’s proposed 2021 Operating Budget.

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Code violations can be double-edged sword for low-income residents

Proactive vs. reactive enforcement

Code is not enforced evenly across the board, meaning that any property with a violation does not automatically mean the owner gets a notice. That’s largely because of the way violations have been discovered and reported.

Historically, code violations have been reported in Columbus through the 311 line. Anyone can call in a violation, and they can be made anonymously. Code enforcement officers — who train for about a year before being required to pass a certification test — would then go to the location of the violation called in and issue a notice if there is truly a violation. That approach is still used for most violations in the City, but it also comes with some issues.

In 2015, a lot of real estate companies were coming in and buying parcels of land and not maintaining them, and we the city were using resources to cut the grass, clean the yards and board the vacant structures. We quickly realized that and … they landed on the top 10 landlord list and quickly PACE issued orders and collated a case to present to the city attorney. Quickly, those folks stopped investing in the Columbus area because they knew they would have to maintain [their properties].
Heather Truesdell, Columbus Code Enforcement Administrator

With that approach, code enforcement officers are reacting to violations as they are called in. That creates a patchwork of uneven enforcement throughout the City. Enforcement staff receive more than 1,800 reports of violations per month on average (pre-pandemic). With a staff of 45 officers to respond to calls, that workload can be difficult to keep up with, Heather Truesdell, Columbus’ code enforcement administrator, told Matter.

As a result, the City decided to shift focus to proactive enforcement in 2014. Code enforcement created a team nicknamed PACE — proactive code enforcement — that would seek out violations rather than waiting to have them reported.

The shift in approaches and creation of the PACE team has allowed code enforcement to use a more systemic approach to finding and issuing violations. The team began using data to suss out landlords who owned buildings with violations that were repeatedly not addressed and created unsafe conditions for tenants. Code enforcement released a list that year and in the years following of the top 10 most problematic landlords. In many ways, that’s been an effective process for creating better housing conditions for renters, Truesdell said.

“In 2015, a lot of real estate companies were coming in and buying parcels of land and not maintaining them, and we the city were using resources to cut the grass, clean the yards and board the vacant structures,” Truesdell said. “We quickly realized that and … they landed on the top 10 landlord list and quickly PACE issued orders and collated a case to present to the city attorney. Quickly, those folks stopped investing in the Columbus area because they knew they would have to maintain [their properties].”

Proactive enforcement can also provide an avenue to hold problematic landlords accountable for repairs without jeopardizing the renters who depend on that housing. For some renters, the fear of retaliatory evictions — where renters are kicked out as a punishment — stops them from reporting unsafe living conditions.

“I love the proactive code enforcement group,” said Ben Horne, the advocacy director for Legal Aid Society of Central Ohio. “It definitely made it better. I think in some apartment complexes, tenants are nervous about calling code because they’re worried about getting retaliated against. So knowing that this is the City initiating these inspections, it’s not just going to be [the tenant] singled out.”

The “two sides of the coin” on code violations

“There are 'two sides of the coin,’ I like to say with code violations and community development,” said Jason Reece, assistant professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.

On one side, code violations can be a tool to fight against apartment owners who don’t maintain properties and keep tenants in unsafe living conditions.

“It’s really the only mechanism we have to try to address their issues in regard to keeping people in housing that’s basically unsafe and unhealthy,” Reece said.

But on the other side, code violations can also create a cost burden for low-income homeowners, Reece said, especially if they are on a fixed budget like many seniors are. Receiving a code violation means that the homeowner must pay to fix the violation or face the fine and potential jail time.

Several programs throughout the city offer assistance for homeowners who can’t afford to make the repairs. The City itself offers funding through several programs and assistance in other ways, like a day that the environmental court (where code violations are handled) hosts for owner-occupied homeowners with violations who need assistance repairing their properties, Horne, the Legal Aid advocacy director, said. Some neighborhoods have specific programs as well. For example, Southside and Linden have grant programs for this purpose.

Even more, the punitive measures — jail time and fines — attached to a code violation can create issues, even if the case doesn’t get that far.

Although Corner was able to get her violation dismissed, she said the punishments for non-compliance can be scary and push folks to take action without contacting code enforcement. For example, she said that a Hispanic resident in Linden received a similar code violation — i.e. parked on the wrong land — after spending several thousand dollars putting gravel in his yard to park. The violation said he had to fix the issue or face a $10,000 fine or possible jail time.

“So, for him, he didn’t have the wherewithal to call and have the conversation,” Corner said. “It scared him so much that he… removed it before even checking with anyone.”

Code Enforcement Administrator Heather Truesdell did note that only 15% of violations — both against landlords and owner-occupied homes — end up in court, but she said she didn’t know how many of those ended up in fines or jail time.

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Code violations and the legacy of redlining

For some neighborhoods, code violations pose a bigger burden than others. A map of 311 data released by the City shows code violations are more concentrated in historically disinvested areas such as Southside, Linden, Franklinton and the Hilltop.

To community development experts like Reece, those concentrations are a direct result of redlining. For a bit of context, redlining was a racist practice beginning in the 1930’s by the Home Owners Loan Corporation where the company classified areas — most often where a majority of the residents were people of color — as “hazardous” indicated by the color red.

These two maps visually compare historically disinvested areas that were redlined in Columbus and the concentration of 311 service requests, which often include code violations.
These two maps visually compare historically disinvested areas that were redlined in Columbus and the concentration of 311 service requests, which often include code violations.Illustration by Marisa Twigg

That classification allowed lenders to deny loans to folks who were looking to buy property or borrow to fix their homes. As a result, less money was going into areas that had been redlined. Over time, that decreased the tax base for these areas, which limited public investment as well.

As property owners in redlined areas were denied loans and their economic opportunities decreased, they had less of an ability to maintain their properties than people in other neighborhoods. That systemic problem could directly relate to why there are so many violations in these same areas now.

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Code violations can be double-edged sword for low-income residents

But the concentration of code violations in disinvested neighborhoods may not just be a result of redlining. Many of these neighborhoods have become hot spots of development, largely because the properties are now much cheaper than others in the city. That can lead to gentrification, which often includes newer residents pushing out existing residents. In Columbus, code violations were a tool used to do that in Olde Towne East in the early 2000’s.

The concentration of code violations could also be a result of predatory investors, who can report code violations in the hopes of putting pressure on homeowners to sell their property. That practice has been revealed in other cities, such as Pittsburgh where residents who were being pressured to sell their houses to cash buyers started noticing violations that didn’t seem to come from neighbors.

As for Columbus, code enforcement officials say they don’t know if it’s happening here because they can’t determine the intention behind reported violations.

“I don’t know that I could tell that from the data that exists,” Truesdell said. “I don’t know of any instances where that’s happening. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening because [residents] have the ability to create service requests anonymously.”

Safety and code violations

When Truesdell became the Code Enforcement Administrator, she shared her philosophy that code enforcement is more than issuing notices for overgrown yards or chipped paint. In a Dispatch article from 2019, she made the case that it’s also a matter of safety, for residents in the building and for the nearby area.

Truesdell said she still believes that is true. She said there are many untold stories within code enforcement, which she has been part of for 25 years as an officer and now administrator, of broken smoke detectors that were fixed in a building that later caught fire or carbon monoxide leaks that code enforcement caught and fixed before anyone was severely injured.

On a broader scale, Truesdell said she also subscribes to the “Broken Windows” theory of public safety. With a degree in criminology, she said she has long believed that more pride in an area will decrease crime.

“You’re trying to make people take pride in their neighborhoods and clean it up so that it’s contagious and spills out,” she said. “If you can clean up the broken windows, you can reduce crime and, you know, I do believe that.”

But the Broken Window theory can be taken too far, Reece said.

“On one hand, yes, we know that particularly with vacant property… all the research is very clear that vacant properties are a tremendous public safety risk,” he said. “On the flip side of that, we can’t take it too far and make this claim that ‘Oh no, your gutters are falling off and that’s a sign of instability and escalates crime in the community.’ That’s where I think we simplify it too much and expand it too broadly.”

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