Is Code Enforcement the Friend or Enemy of Lower Income Family Home Ownership?

New Orleans    As a principle part of our organizing around adequate and affordable housing over decades, we’ve always believed in there being a “warrant of habitability” and some clear standards in housing codes that insured the safety and health of lower income families.  We still believe that, but we’re having a problem with the application of these principles that has all of us working with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign scratching our heads at a very fundamental level.

In an increasing number of communities where we are on the doors and working with families to move out of installment contracts of various stripes, we are finding some real fissures at the junction of families trying to achieve home ownership and the rigid and arbitrary enforcement of building codes.  Recently, we had to mourn with a family who lost their home not through foreclosure due to an onerous land contract, but after years of satisfying the contract and making repairs to improve the home and its value, code enforcement was forcing a series of additional repairs in an unreasonable amount of time that would have exceeded the value of the home itself much less the resources of the family, doing much of the work themselves.  This is nonsensical.  The result will be the abandonment and eventually, years later, the demolition of a home that could have been saved and instead will be a danger and eyesore in the community and yet another affordable home lost when we are so desperate to find them.  Sadly, this family in Detroit is not an isolated case, but one we are confronting over and over again across the country.

Paradoxically, while we are caught in the middle of a national affordable housing crisis for rental units coupled with an eviction surge and a continuing decrease of home ownership among lower income and minority families, rather than cities making the effort to maintain homes and families, they are pushing them out.  What sense does that make?  Furthermore, given the public economy of most cities, the number of building inspectors has dropped like a rock exacerbating the situation and forcing more rigid timelines as inspectors are unable to extend timelines and make repeated visits to insure reasonable compliance.  It’s one and done too often.  Code enforcement is a public good, but justice without mercy is a public disaster.

A deeper existential question that arises for our organizers and leaders revolves around whether or not we should respect peoples’ right to choose to live in precarious situations?  We don’t step in when we see an upper middle-class family living on the 2nd floor of their home in Houston after the flood or New Orleans after Katrina, while the house is being rebuilt from the studs on the first floor.  No inspector condemns the home.  No police come to push them out on the orders of the city.  If a lower income family “makes do” fixing as they can and living “around” repairs in order to own a home or afford the rent, do we have a way of measuring progress or determining the difference between exploitation and reasoned choice?

In Latin America and around the world, ACORN always sees homes in the process of construction with rebar on the roof for additional rooms or another floor, waiting for more resources for completion.  This is a measure of rising income and progress globally.  Why are we unable to allow more choices in the United States for families trying to determine their future and build assets or simply put up with some level of acceptable problems or even risks that might inconvenience without endangering?

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