Code enforcement: It’s no one’s idea of an electrifying dinner party topic, but it is one of the most powerful tools city leaders have for keeping rental housing safe and neighborhoods stable.
An effective rental inspection program protects tenants and their children from housing conditions that are damaging to human health. It keeps neighborhoods from entering a downward spiral of vacancies and blight, and affordable housing units from falling into disrepair and eventually being flipped by market-rate investors.
In the battle for safe, habitable, affordable housing, protecting the residential units that already exist within a community is every bit as essential as building new units. A well-run rental inspection program helps city leaders safeguard their community’s housing stock, and the residents who call it home.
Rental Inspection Keeps Tenants Safe
Housing codes exist for good reasons. Without multiple ways to exit a building, the people who live there are in greater danger in the event of a fire or a flood. Without laws that require building owners to remove or remediate lead paint, children are at greater risk for lead poisoning, and the developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral problems it causes. Laws that govern ventilation, smoke detectors, asbestos, and a building's structure all exist to keep renters safe.
But without a rental inspection program, these important housing codes are little more than words on a page. The majority of landlords will abide by the law and maintain their properties; it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s almost always in their best interest. But in some neighborhoods, particularly poorer neighborhoods with lower property values, allowing buildings to fall into disrepair can be economically expedient. According to the National Center for Healthy Housing, more than six million American families live in substandard housing.
An effective rental inspection program, particularly a proactive rental inspection program that periodically monitors rental properties even in the absence of complaints from tenants or neighbors, can tilt the incentives in the other direction and provide the nudge that some landlords need to make needed repairs at their buildings.
In fact, public health professionals now say that having a proactive rental inspection program is itself an indicator of a city’s overall housing health. The national CityHealth initiative recently added rental inspection as a criteria for determining whether cities have healthy rental housing. When paired with rental registration policies, which are necessary for local leaders to have a clear picture of the units in their community that need monitoring, a rental inspection program helps protect renters and community health, the group says.
Preventing Urban Blight Through Rental Inspection
There are few things that damage the fabric of a neighborhood like a concentration of blighted or abandoned properties.
When rental homes fall into disrepair and are eventually boarded up and abandoned, they become magnets for crimes like vandalism, arson, and theft of copper or appliances. Violent crime is also higher in the immediate area of blighted or vacant properties. One study on Pittsburgh from 2015 found that violent crime occurred 15 percent more frequently within 250 feet of a vacant structure than it did at a distance of 300 feet or more.
All of this has a predictable economic impact on nearby homeowners and landlords, and the locality at large. Blighted or abandoned properties depress surrounding home values, and the local tax base along with them. Cities collect less in property tax revenue, while bearing the increased cost of fire and police resources, and eventually the cost of condemning and demolishing vacant properties.
Rental inspection is the best way to prevent a residential building from entering the “disrepair death cycle” and taking the surrounding neighborhood with it. The costs associated with rental inspection are recoverable in most cases, through registration or inspection fees paid by property owners. Rental inspection offers other economic benefits as well. CityHealth estimates that cities can reduce residential fires by 50 percent and save millions on first responder costs through effective rental inspection programs.
Rental Inspection Protects Affordable Housing
Housing units that fall into disrepair don’t just pose a public health threat to renters and an economic threat to the surrounding neighborhood. They also become vulnerable to speculators, contributing to the erosion of a community’s affordable housing supply.
When run-down properties are sold, the new owner is often a “property flipper” whose objective is to renovate the building and resell it to someone who will rent it at a higher rate. Remaining tenants are often displaced through legal or illegal means at some point throughout this process. The economic incentive to do so is obvious, particularly in hot housing markets or gentrifying neighborhoods. A 2015 study found that New York City property flippers could expect a profit of $215,000 from the average resale, and empty buildings are worth more than buildings that come with low-income tenants.
While periodic renovations are necessary to keep a community’s housing stock safe and habitable, they can also function as a tool to shift a unit of housing from serving lower-income renters, to serving higher-income renters. Periodic rental inspection keeps buildings from falling into severe disrepair, making them less likely to lose value and appeal to investors looking for a quick flip.
Support for an Effective Rental Inspection Program
Putting an effective rental inspection program in place can keep renters healthy, protect the investments of homeowners and landlords, improve public safety, and preserve affordability in your community.
Even better, the right tools make enacting a rental inspection program and managing it simple. With built-in payment processing, mobile inspection apps for field managers, easy-to-use portals to keep property owners and city workers in the loop, and a streamlined case management system to make tracking and follow-up easy, your city can easily enforce its housing codes and protect its housing stock.
To learn more about how you can protect renters in your community through smart software, check out this guide.