What is Code Violation Pertaining to Property Matters?

“Code” means a particular part of the law in the U.S., so code enforcement occurs when cities and towns enforce their local laws. When used in the context of community development, the term pertains to property upkeep and standards for new construction.  Aggressive but sensible approaches to bringing property owners into compliance with the law can be an important part of maintaining the appearance, functioning, and property values of a neighborhood.

Typically codes other than construction codes deal with the exterior maintenance of structures, overgrown vegetation, outdoor storage, provisions specifically pertinent to fire safety and to health in commercial establishments, and such. A zoning ordinance may be considered a type of code as well, but we have devoted a separate section of this site to that complex subject.

Just to be clear, the aim of code enforcement should be compliance, not punishment or vengeance. 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 rounded out to provide information about 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 quality code enforcement.

We also should mention that 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 not only adopts the codes but also describes how enforcement proceeds.

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.

But 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. 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.

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.

After the enforcement officer sends a 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 summons to a municipal or county court. Often these hearings are somewhat informal in tone, but 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).

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 spotting a code violation turn the matter over to another department that handles codes.

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, and many health-related topics form part of the rationale for housing codes.

Zoning also is separately enforced in many jurisdictions; often a compliance officer is placed in the planning department.

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.