Community Progress Blog

Bringing Sexy Back: Code Enforcement Baltimore Style

Written by on September 25, 2011

Where else but Little Italy in Baltimore in 2011 could you find 20 people from across the country on a Monday night deeply engaged in dialogue about the intricacies of code enforcement systems and processes? And who would sponsor such a gathering if not the Center for Community Progress? “Turning Vacant Spaces into Vibrant Places” is more than a tag line for Community Progress – it is what a small but determined group of professionals around the United States are passionately and persistently dedicated to accomplishing in our hometowns. We think it is time to make Code Enforcement “sexy”, and recognize what a pivotal role effective Code Enforcement can have in revitalizing struggling cities; but as we embark on this complex endeavor, many of us are discovering crippling weaknesses in our code enforcement programs, which are the front lines in the blight battle. If we don’t succeed in code enforcement, there is no new law, litigation strategy, ordinance or court that can stop the bleeding and bring stability to our communities.

This week, at the invitation of the Center for Community Progress, Baltimore Housing’s finest, including Deputy Commissioner Michael Braverman, Assistant Commissioner Jason Hessler and Assistant Commissioner Eric Booker, along with the “A-Team” of Code Enforcement consultants and experts (Joe Schilling, Kermit Lind and Doug Leeper), took in teams from three cities – Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans – and listened to us, inspired us and challenged us with the Baltimore code enforcement story as the backdrop. What Baltimore Housing has accomplished in the approximately seven years since Braverman took the reins is nothing short of remarkable. But the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and those of us privileged to be in attendance at the workshop came away with a strong sense of encouragement and with a number of ideas that we hope to try out back home right away, and others that we will aspire to implement over time as the opportunities arise.

Blight is not new for any of our cities, and we all reluctantly acknowledged that it is with us to stay. In Baltimore, of 11,000 problem vacant structures, a realistic permanent solution is likely attainable in the short term in only 1,000 cases. The other 10,000 would only be feasible to address aggressively with a capital infusion of literally hundreds of millions of dollars. Due to population loss in the long term and the economic downturn in the short term, our cities are simply overbuilt and there is no market for a significant number of buildings. Recognizing this fact is a crucial first step towards crafting a reasonable solution to solving problem properties that recognizes market realities and targets limited resources at interventions that will yield the best results. In other words, we aren’t going to eliminate blight. But there are steps we can and should take which will have an exponential impact on the problem.

Another important realization that the Memphis team has come to is that solutions to code enforcement challenges are of necessity hyper-local. There are innumerable variations between and among state and local laws, ordinances, practices, and politics touching on code enforcement issues. This means that while it is extremely helpful and instructive to observe and learn about successful code enforcement solutions in different cities, the hard work of crafting a plan to maximize the code enforcement enterprise is left to local governments – experts can help, but there is no silver bullet.

Members of the Memphis team, which includes Memphis CAO George Little, Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter, Assistant City Attorney Patrick Dandridge and myself, are ready to roll up our sleeves and begin to incrementally move towards an improved system. Some of the goals we will be working towards are to build capacity of the legal arm of code enforcement, to expand training opportunities for inspectors and build an “esprit de corps”, to build capacity of the investigative arm of code enforcement, to establish more predictable and measurable processes from “boots on the ground” inspections to compliance, and to implement these processes using sensible software solutions that allow for greater efficiency, transparency and accountability.

So with the Baltimore Housing team leading the way, we are doing our part to bring the “sexy” back to Code Enforcement. If you want to win on the front lines of the battle against blight, the first thing you need to do is be sure your soldiers are reporting for duty with the ammunition, support and fire power necessary to win.

Steve Barlow is an attorney with Brewer & Barlow PLC in Memphis who serves as Special Counsel to the City of Memphis responsible for the litigation component of Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr.’s “Campaign to End Blight”. He is also proud to be a 2011 Community Progress Leadership Institute Graduate.

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