‘We can’t do that for your neighborhood, because then every neighborhood would want it,’ a flustered City official told me.
‘Wait, you can’t come out and write tickets to negligent building owners every month so they finally fix up their neighborhoods?’ I asked.
‘Right. If everyone asked for it, then we wouldn’t be able to do anything,’ said flustered City worker informed me.
This is one of the most basic functions of a City. Enforcing the building code is a pretty straightforward undertaking, and it’s central to how Detroit should ultimately rebuild itself. And while I don’t dispute that the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) is understaffed, there’s relatively straightforward ways that BSEED can make a bigger impact with the staff they have on hand.
- ‘Clerical is backed up.’ This is something that we hear a lot when I ask about how it’s coming with inspections in Indian Village. What it means is that inspectors are still writing stuff up on paper in the field, and then handing it off to clerical staff who then enter it into computers. Inspections should be done on tablets with a wireless connection in the field, thus eliminating the need for clerical workers (who could then possibly be retrained to be something else, say inspectors perhaps?), would make a lot of sense.
- ‘If everyone in the City asked for it, we wouldn’t be able to give them inspections.’ This is the refrain I’m the most tired of hearing. The fact of the matter is that not every neighborhood in the City is asking for it. Another fact of the matter is that the City, bless their hearts, do things in a sectional way sometimes. Cases in point: Hardest Hit Funds, what the City uses for demolitions, are not applied citywide. The targeted areas for the addition of City funded multi-unit housing developments is not being done citywide. The nuisance abatement program from the Detroit Land Bank Authority is not being done citywide. There are many programs the City starts that don’t apply everywhere. Residential code enforcement can be one of them.
- ‘Well, we can’t do blight inspections on detached, single family homes, because folks can’t afford to make repairs.’ Not in Indian Village. They sure as hell can. And likely in the West Village as well. And the great thing about starting building code inspections in areas that are already stable and doing better economically than the city as a whole, when you start in areas like Indian Village and the West Village, word spreads, and folks around them, such as in Islandview, the East Village and Pingree Park will probably begin correcting violations before inspectors even show up. Word spreads fast.
Detroiters shouldn’t have to look at cars parked on yards and broken windows.
At the end of the day, this actually isn’t even about enforcing on every single building code violation. In each neighborhood, you select one major violation per block, and then you cite the homeowner on it. Pick the severe stuff, nothing trifling like flaking paint. I’m talking about collapsing porches, holes in roofs, broken windows, and the like. Once you target one case, and the City demonstrates that they’re serious about improving the quality of the building stock, homeowners will comply. You target a few of the most severe cases that everyone can agree on, and the vast majority of people will begin to comply without getting a correction notice.
In all of this, the criticism of this policy that rings the loudest is how you actually try to preserve residents in place. The application of the building code should not be used as a pretext for displacement. While cities are never static, there’s always people moving in and out, as is the hallmark of any healthy urban setting, water shutoffs and tax foreclosure have already decimated predominantly working class black communities. The City should proceed with the recognition that while the application of the building code itself should not further displace residents. I want to take a minute to applaud the Housing Revitalization Department for putting together lists of resources in the form of what homeowners can obtain as it relates to foreclosure prevention, lead abatement, grants, low interest loans, and assistance for seniors, veterans and families.
The path forward is clear. The City does indeed have the ability to embrace residential code enforcement on detached, single family homes in the neighborhoods. The City has even done some of the ground work on how to make sure that those resources are available to homeowners who may face challenges to staying in place. And there are tactics the City can embrace to punch well above their weight with respect to the resources they have on hand. Now, as with anything, it’s just a question of doing it.