Last updated: October 11, 2022
Code enforcement describes the steps that cities and towns take to assure compliance with their local laws. In the context of community development, the term pertains to property upkeep and standards for new construction.
Typically these local laws, which usually reference internationally devised codes compiled by experts, cover the exterior maintenance and integrity of structures, plumbing and electrical health and safety, overgrown vegetation, outdoor storage, standards for remodeling, provisions for fire safety and health in commercial establishments, and many other such details. Codes for energy conservation, hurricane protection, or other local priorities also may be adopted. The building code deals with new construction. A zoning ordinance is a type of code as well, but a separate section of this site delves into that complex subject.
Violation of these codes is handled as a civil matter, not a criminal one, in many places in the U.S., at least unless the violation is persistent, severe, and defiant.
A couple of us who write for this website have been in charge of municipal code enforcement operations. The resounding take-aways from those experiences have been the importance of sensible and assertive approaches to bringing property owners into compliance with the law. We also believe in prompt enforcement.
In one instance, one of us was called at 8:30 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning because the neighbors had taken out an old toilet over the weekend and left it on the patio. Because we acted right away in sending out the inspector, the complaining neighbor was neutralized and in fact apologized for her behavior. This happened in spite of the fact that we were unable to cite a code violation since the item had been left outdoors for only about 36 hours at the point when we made the visit. Yet when we contacted the property owner in a friendly, informal fashion, the offending toilet was moved to a garage in less than half an hour. That's what we want.
Code enforcement can be an important part of maintaining the appearance, functioning, and property values of a neighborhood. Savvy neighborhood groups rely on code enforcement for bringing properties up to a minimum community standard.
Twice we have said the goal of code enforcement is to motivate compliance, and we said nothing about punishment. Emphasizing punishment is a big mistake, even if neighbors and code enforcement officers find a property owner's behavior and attitudes to be deplorable.
It is not unusual for property owners to feel that the inspectors charged with code enforcement are too hostile in either their attitudes, behavior, or invasion of privacy. In fact, if you look over the community development questions and answers on this website, you will see several instances of our website visitors thinking that inspectors are picking on them. We will talk about those issues at the end of this piece.
In addition to this introductory article, this section includes four specialized discussions shown below. After the grid, this page explains how local codes work.
In This Section: Building Code -- Property Maintenance Code -- Existing Building Code -- Vacant Building Registration
If a town or county has a code, someone employed by the city government has responsibility for inspecting new construction and investigating complaints. Occasionally code enforcement is out-sourced to some consultant or sometimes nearby towns will share one officer, but that's not typical.
Sometimes police officers handle code enforcement, but in larger towns and especially where code infractions are civil infractions, there is often a specialized code enforcement office.
After the enforcement officer sends a written notice of violation to the property owner, usually a property owner has a short amount of time to correct the violation. If re-inspection shows that the violation still exists, in the opinion of code enforcement personnel, the property owner is sent a citation and a summons to a municipal or county court. Often these hearings are somewhat informal in tone, but they consist of both the code enforcement officer and the property owner having a chance to explain conditions and circumstances. The judge has punishment options at his or her disposal, generally emphasizing fines and repeated court appearances until the violation is corrected ("abated" in the jargon of the subject).
Occasionally a code enforcement board replaces the functions of the municipal judge. These board members may or may not be attorneys or specialists in the building trades, but they represent the collective will of the community.
In a number of states, a property owner found to be in violation by a city staff member or a municipal judge has a right to appeal the case to a district or superior court. Often the fine or punishment also can be appealed.
Understand that the code enforcement or building inspector isn't usually a police officer. Some municipalities do use the police for those functions, but in larger towns and cities, even police who spot a code violation turn the matter over to another department.
Fire codes typically are administered and enforced by the fire department, since they tend to apply only to commercial land uses; topics related to residential fire safety are simply incorporated into relevant housing codes. Similarly, health codes are enforced on commercial property owners by the health department, but many health-related topics form part of the rationale for housing codes. But community activists need to be aware that there are such laws that typically are not routed to the same office as ordinary code infractions.
Zoning also is separately enforced in many jurisdictions; often a compliance officer is placed in the planning department.
Some entire states have adopted a housing code, building code, or other law similar to what we describe in this section. In this case, individual municipalities aren't tasked with passing their own ordinance, but state law adopts the codes and describes how enforcement proceeds. We will focus on the local level on this site, but we did want to alert you to that possibility.
Most towns and cities practice only complaint-based code enforcement, largely for cost reasons. The opposite approach, called systematic code enforcement, most typically is employed when a local community determines that a particular area needs a concentrated maintenance effort to remain vital. We discuss this tool in more detail below.
The opposite of a complaint-based system is often called a systematic or methodical program. Note that a building code is methodical because inspections during new construction occur when certain items are complete and prior to their being enclosed by future phases of construction.
We are aware that some cities and towns even ignore complaints if they don't have the personpower, or the political will, to pursue certain situations. Often in these areas, reliance on codes only comes into play when a city official considers a condition to be a potentially serious health or safety situation.
Yes, in theory every code is based on health and safety, but we think you would agree that some potential safety issues are more ominous than others.
In some cases the block by block "systematic" program of enforcing nuisance laws, or property maintenance codes, is important. If your neighborhood is in trouble, and you feel that property owners can afford to keep up their properties, but they aren't doing so, this is when the systematic, house-by-house program could prevent the neighborhood from moving into total decline.
The technique sometimes is called a windshield survey. This means that a code inspector or consultant drives through the neighborhood and peers through the windshield to identify apparent violations of the existing housing code or property maintenance code. They also note weeds, grass that is taller than allowed by code, fences that are falling down, abandoned unlicensed cars, animals that are not permitted under the ordinance, or other and any other potential nuisance that is spelled out in the code.
Reasons for systematic code enforcement could be as follows.
1. A relatively large number of complaints in a particular geographic area are received.
2. A jurisdiction receives many complaints about aesthetics, as opposed to structural defects such as a porch that's falling off the house. Cosmetic complaints might be about peeling paint, derelict cars, high weeds, or piles of junk left strewn about the lawn randomly.
3. A neighborhood has a high percentage of rental property or a small sub-area that doesn't measure up to the standards of other community folks. Note that this idea of community standards is subject to abuse when it is wielded as a weapon against a racial or ethnic minority that may have an entirely different set of "community standards."
4. The potential still exists for a viable neighborhood if relatively superficial problems are remedied, or if landlords can be forced to reinvest in their properties to the extent that the community demands.
In theory fines, which often are imposed for each day that the violation continues, can continue indefinitely in a contest of wills between a property owner and the judge.
In practice, usually the property owner will give in after a while and perform minimal maintenance or even optimal maintenance, unless he or she cannot afford to do so.
It is also possible, of course, that the property owner will be able to prove that the situation is not as it appeared to the inspector. This would be particularly true in states and jurisdictions where the "right of access" or "right of entry" of the inspector to the property is fairly limited, and where visibility into the property is constrained. We should warn you that the right of entry is not necessarily being upheld by the courts, so now many cities are instituting a policy of requiring their employees to obtain a search warrant in advance of issuing violations.
Many codes provide that after a certain period of non-compliance, the city or county can perform the work and charge the property owner. If no immediate payment is forthcoming, the local government has the right to file a lien against the property. This means that when the property is sold, the government collects its money back. Unpaid fines also may result in a lien; sometimes state law even allows imprisonment due to unpaid fines.
Often cities also have a power that may be called summary abatement where you live. This means that in what a city considers an emergency situation, the city can take action to remedy the situation without so much as a hearing.
Some municipal or county codes, operating under state law, provide that if the owner does not pay for the local government's work, property ownership can be transferred to the local government. Usually this provision is confined to vacant land, however, and its actual implementation is fairly rare.
Penalties may be harsher in the case of businesses or vacant land that is out of compliance. A business might lose its business license, as often fire and health violations especially are addressed to the business owner, not the property owner. Vacant land penalties may be more severe than the penalty for a comparable debris violation on a homeowner’s property.
Absentee out-of-state owners may present a particular problem, as the local government may not be able to even issue a summons. In those cases, voluntary compliance or a lien against the property are usually the only realistic options.
Special attention to what happens in low-income neighborhoods is warranted. Remembering that compliance is the goal but that some may not be able to afford compliance, accumulating daily fines for someone who already cannot afford to make repairs does not bring about compliance. We maintain that a quality program should establish some formal partnerships either with philanthropic organizations or financial institutions that will make low-cost loans. Sometimes governments even make forgivable loans to those who hold the property for a given number of years, if the state constitution permits. The municipality does not benefit if it forces property turnover in a neighborhood where demand is low.
However, we had good success when both code enforcement and community development renovation funds were handled in the same department. A high percentage of property owners came into compliance with the law once they figured out they couldn't beat the system and also that financial help was available when necessary.
Obviously positive owner responses to code enforcement letters are more likely where property values are high, so the slow market city will have to be particularly careful to offer a well-rounded program that offers resources as well as the prospect of punishment.
A program for educating homeowners about their code responsibilities will prevent some of the most emotional conflict situations and help neighbors inclined to complain to weigh their options carefully. In any case, resident understanding of the available codes and how they are applied and enforced is important in maintaining good relationships between government and resident.
The building code feels different from the others discussed in this section, in that it deals with the integrity of a structure from the beginning of construction.
However, we included that subject in this topic area because
the origins and administrative principles are the same, even though
typically a neighborhood isn't depending on the building code to resolve
community appearance and neatness issues. Note that separate plumbing, electrical, and mechanical codes pertaining largely to heating and cooling often are enacted, and in many communities all of these collectively are referred to as "the building code" in common conversation.
In contrast, the property maintenance code, if you have one, and the existing building code do deal directly with aesthetics and cleanliness, and thus the neighborhood impact, of buildings.
Those are the topics most commonly associated with code enforcement. We
should note that the latter two codes fall under an umbrella term sometimes
used by governments, inspectors, activists, and property owners, who may speak
of "the housing code," even when actually there are one or more separate codes
that have been adopted that are relevant to housing. Even these, however, ultimately are related to safety at least as much as to neighborhood quality.
Some communities have an energy conservation, swimming pool code, urban-wildlands interface code, or other newer code. We suspect that soon we will see one or more climate adaptation codes, as well as changes to the standard codes to meet climate challenges. Nuisance ordinances governing outdoor storage, junk automobile storage, overgrown vegetation, and such may be standalone laws, or some provisions might be in the zoning ordinance.
Older neighborhoods especially need to rely on code enforcement to make sure that buildings are maintained sufficiently to keep up property values and also to keep pace with new technologies and safety research.
While property owners often think that the way they take care of their property is their own business, the major impact that neighboring properties have on one another's value and enjoyment means that building maintenance and safety becomes the business of everyone in the neighborhood.
When you hear someone loosely talking about code violations and why the city isn't enforcing the codes, the first question to ask yourself as a neighborhood leader is whether your town actually has adopted by ordinance a code that would cover the offending situation.
If so, you might have a clear path toward making property owners accountable for maintaining their buildings (both the main building and any garages, storage sheds, and such). You also may have a way to deal with some ugly or inappropriate things people keep outdoors, although we have to warn you that codes often don't address some of the worst aesthetic decisions that people make!
If your neighbor leaves their old sofa on the porch, and you don't like it, that doesn't necessarily mean it is a code violation. Your particular code would have to speak directly to the situation. Although there's a bit of personal judgment on the part of the inspector involved, it doesn't stretch far. Codes do not necessarily address everything that you might find offensive aesthetically. I hope you can appreciate that what you may think is an "old sofa" might be considered a quirky porch chair by your neighbor. In the end, your local codes won't address anything and everything you might find ugly, but they certainly help maintain a basic standard.
We have added a page on vacant building registration to this section. Even though a vacant property registration ordinance isn't really considered a code (except in the sense that all local ordinances are part of the local "code" or "code of laws"), the aim of requiring vacant building owners to register is code compliance, as far as we are concerned. These laws represent an emerging trend that dovetails nicely with some of the codes we describe on this page.
If you are an elected official or a local government staff member, you can see that setting the standards for code enforcement can be challenging. If you keep in mind compliance as the goal rather than punishment, your vision becomes clearer. From that standpoint, we see that reasons for lack of compliance include not only
defiance and carelessness, but also lack of knowledge about how to remedy the
problem and inability to afford the needed repairs.
A good municipal or county code enforcement program should be supplemented by providing resources for finding good advice and for obtaining financial assistance if needed. In other words, policies and programs, as well as finding and prosecuting violations of the law, are encompassed in a quality code enforcement program.
A few progressive communities have established formal or informal systems, inside government or inside of a non-profit organization, to handle neighbor disagreements within a mediation framework. It's a splendid idea, especially for recurring feuds where neighbors simply don't get along. This is more common than you might imagine.
If you have access to a mediation center, this can be a useful alternative to traditional code enforcement methods, especially in areas where hostility toward government in general is brimming over. While trained mediators can help bring people into compliance when the dispute is primarily between two neighbors, our experience has been that it is less helpful when a large segment of the neighborhood feels impacted and thus the problem is not as much a disagreement between two parties as it is a societal disapproval of certain actions.
We also like the process of creating formal compliance agreements, which act like mini-contracts between the municipality or county and the property owner. They also could involve third parties such as neighbors or neighborhood associations.
Your active interest in the quality and impacts of your code enforcement program can make a big difference in how your communities look, the attitudes of your citizens toward government, and property values and business investment in your community.
Many people resist the very idea of code enforcement, especially those whose lifestyle often makes them a target. Folks with a strong libertarian bent, artists, and eccentric people of all stripes will argue against the entire idea or a particular application of the law.
We've had a couple of interesting exchanges with our site visitors about the limits of code enforcement and avoiding code violations. Anti-code enforcement sentiment among casual site visitors has increased substantially over the years since we started this website. A number of these have to do with inspector behavior and perceived intrusiveness. See our answers to visitor questions about homeowner rights in terms of code enforcement, code enforcement right to enter property, one saying the inspector entered the home, and another on threatening behavior by code officers. Then sometimes there are allegations of favoritism, such as the answered question about elected officials and ordinance enforcement.
It's true that in some areas, usually upscale suburbs, code enforcement employees become unreasonably aggressive in response to pressure from elected officials who hear from vocal complainers. Of course inspectors can succumb to the same temptations of too much power that police face.
If your neighborhood association thinks the enforcement program is too intolerant, one or two of you should meet with elected officials about the delicate balance between too much enforcement and not enough.
Wise use of standard international codes, typically developed and led by the International Code Council right now, can improve the safety, appearance, and longevity of the community's buildings. It can improve property owners' return on investment and preserve your reputation as a fine neighborhood or town in which to live.
The benefits of adopting and enforcing good codes far outweigh the infringement on unfettered personal liberty. We know that is tough to persuade citizens and leaders of this fact within rural areas, so see our page on code enforcement in rural areas for a two-phase approach more specific to rural environments.
Nonetheless, even the target of an enforcement action benefits from the increased property value that may result. When code enforcement is opposed in a blanket way, it simply means that individual prosperity and whims are considered to be always more important than the joys and benefits of being in community.
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