There are a number of ways to address the issue of securing the housing stock of a community so as not to receive the comments I heard so many years ago. The first is a community, political and service ethic that the existing housing of the community is as important if not more important that seeking to build an industrial park or a new commercial center or restoring the downtown. The City Council and the appointed approval boards must realize the importance of its existing neighborhoods. As a city manager and or community/economic development professional, we can all say that we strive to provide service to the entire community; and at the same time, we must be intimately familiar with every neighborhood. We need to know what the housing stock, front and back yards really look like; the condition of the infrastructure, the number and type of complaints, service and emergency calls (police, fire, water service, sanitary sewer, flooding, etc.) received from that neighborhood and the socio-economics of that neighborhood. There is a direct correlation between all of these issues.
If a business person drove through THAT neighborhood, what is his/her impression of the community and how it is served? Will that neighborhood participate in the economic fruits of new development? Will the new development support community services? Will the new revenue be distributed for neighborhood improvements? Are all services being distributed equitably in your particular community? All of these fit into the equation of overall economic development and community sustainability. I will argue that these neighborhoods must see the city services first. Unfortunately, the attention and services from City Hall will cut both ways. These neighborhoods must see infrastructure improvements AND enforcement of a community wide exterior maintenance program. (The International Code Council has produced an easily understandable property maintenance program).
Let’s first start with the capital improvements program (herein as Cap Plan). Most of us are familiar with putting together a Cap Plan. A thorough Cap Plan will include a Pavement Management Program inspection (PMP). The PMP will often tell us not only the condition of the street, it will tell the condition of infrastructure lines under that pavement. The types of complaints (flooding, backed up sewers, water line breaks) from the neighborhood will provide additional documentation and justification. These pieces of information will also provide positive information and support for grant applications. Over the years I have heard many city managers tell stories of the correlation of infrastructure improvement in neighborhoods and the efforts made by residents to clean up yards, and building exteriors.
Creating an exterior maintenance program (herein EMP) will do the same thing. It may have a few more headaches, however, within it carries tools for creating successful neighborhoods and is a long term tool as all neighborhoods age. Asking the City Council to adopt such a code is central to improving neighborhoods and preventing some neighborhoods from deteriorating. Of course, these programs also help stabilize and protect property values (for which our school systems may or may not thank the City Council).
Equally important to the program will be the personality of the inspector and that person’s knowledge of available housing assistance programs (i.e., CDBG, NSP). The overall goal of program is compliance over time, hopefully avoiding any municipal litigation. Taking the homeowner to court is the last thing that should be done. I have worked with residents with whom compliance took over twelve months! Every homeowner’s dollar is stretching eight different ways. Showing compassion and understanding is key, especially of the resident knows what the overall program is trying to accomplish — and that person’s role in helping the community prosper and grow. And at the same time, stress to the owner the need to make progress. City Councils and neighbors need to understand this point. Hammering someone to comply in immediate time frames — using a court hearing and fines will only drag out the final goal of compliance and take cash out of that person’s pocket, delaying the situation even more, if not making it worse.
Record keeping is key in this program — if for no other reason than being able to inform complainants’ (and City Council members) of the situation and recorded progress being made. Pictures are a great tool. Further this information will be important when applying for CDBG housing fund monies or infrastructure fund monies. Getting information to the homeowner that assistance my be available may help soften the blow of receiving the dreaded compliance letter from the City.
With the recently adopted federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), more federal money is available to deal with neighborhood eyesores — primarily vacant houses. I recall talking with a Parks Director the importance of “pocket parks” in neighborhoods. This concept has been largely forgotten, focusing instead on large parks with large game and sports fields. This is a good time to revisit the idea. These newly vacant lots may be designed, with the neighborhood, focusing on small children or seniors or turning the former eyesore into a neighborhood garden.
Another approach with the NSP program and/or the CDBG housing program is to adopt a new building partnership with the neighborhood and a county-wide homebuilders association (HBA). The City of Akron has used this model rather effectively. The City of Kent started such a program, but it sadly fell apart in the transition of city managers and changing priorities. The Summit County Homebuilders Association purchases property from the City of Akron, or often times is given the property and new affordable homes are built. Infrastructure improvements are provided by the City (either via proprietary funding or grant funding). The HBA and neighbors can create an architectural review program to avoid cookie-cutter buildings and the neighborhood can act as a source of identifying new first time homeowners, also eligible for funding assistance. This is truly a win-win for all concerned.
A property maintenance program can work well with a neighborhood blockwatch program. Pairing these programs can be very empowering to a neighborhood. We need to encourage those in problematic or at-risk neighborhoods to landscape their yards — plant bright colorful flower beds — not pots. Potted plants imply temporary. Planted beds imply permanence — a sense of being home — taking a stand. In one community, we paired the blockwatch leaders with the police department in reacting to loud parties, drug busts and the like. While the police were making the arrests, phone numbers of the property owners were supplied to the block watch officials. (In lieu of direct phone numbers they were taught how to look up owners using county property tax records and they could then find phone numbers from there). We made it a practice of both the blockwatch officials and the police department calling the landlord at the time of the incident and/or arrest. Enough telephone calls at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., turned out to be an “incentive” to the landlord to deal with disruptive tenants. In many cases, these landlords sold their properties. In fact, in one community, we encouraged a number of landlords with problematic tenants to hold a neighborhood “open house.” This particular situation ended up in families purchasing these houses and moving. The voices of small children were far preferable to what had been heard.
New and improved neighborhoods not only spruce up parts of a community, these improvements create a new lively spirit. Neighborhood pride soars, and with it community pride. City administrators and Councils will note a decrease in complaints, service calls, and emergency service calls, essentially saving operational monies. I am sure there are many more potential solutions. Please feel free to share your community success stories on this blog. The more people that are talking about improving our communities, the better we all become.