Code Enforcement the Mary Poppins Way

Jordan Rae Hillman, AICP, TwitterLinkedIn, Community Development Director at Brandon, MS shares a proactive approach to gaining code compliance.


The code enforcement officer position easily ranks on my top five list of the most thankless jobs in local government. Citizens generally are not fans. They may have been in receipt of one of the officer’s “nastygrams”, or simply believe the city should not tell anyone what to do with their property.  Code enforcement only becomes valuable when a citizen experiences a neighborhood level issue which impacts them directly.

The job of a code enforcement officer is akin to being the Mary Poppins of the city – keeping everything tidy and ship shape through encouragement or discipline. Everything goes better with a spoon full of sugar, including the art of code enforcement. The following strategies use this approach and are battle tested for success.

Strategy #1: Discretion in Type of Notice and Tone of Notice

It is common to use forms adversarial in nature when alerting a citizen to a violation. This approach fails to explain the issue in detail or offer a open pathway to compliance. The tone often encourages the recipient to respond in fear of prosecution instead of open communication.

Using multiple avenues to provide notice is crucial to the spoon full of sugar approach. Notice can be given via doorhanger, flyer, sticker, courtesy notice, phone call, formal notice of violation, or any other creative mechanism for communication.  Each of these can be used at the officer’s discretion based on the severity of the violation, safety level of the issue, and past history of the property.

The commonality is using a tone which encourages communication. Relationships are built with the citizen when communication remains open and respectful. Officers can more confidently extend compliance deadlines when citizens communicate and are progressing. This leads to an increased voluntary compliance rate and a decrease in cases resulting in prosecution.

Strategy #2: Fair Application

Code enforcement is often operated on a complaint only basis. A more proactive officer will evaluate the entire street upon receiving a complaint. You will often find if a violation is present on one property, a few adjacent neighbors will also have similar issues. A favorite excuse for a property owner after receiving a violation notice is “Well my neighbor across the street is doing it too, why didn’t you get them?”. Working proactively allows the officer to answer that the neighbors have also been given the same notice and everyone is being treated equally. The squeaky wheel is not the only thing getting the grease, and the activity of enforcement is more effective in clusters.

Strategy #3: Neighborhood Sweeps

Neighborhood Sweeps are one of the most effective and efficient code enforcement tools for achieving visible results. A sweep identifies an area exhibiting distress and involves sending a blanket letter to each property owner in the identified area. The sweep letter is sent to the resident occupying the property regardless of ownership status.

The letter lets the residents know that officers will be in the area soon. The letter identifies three to four common violations and explains the code in plain English. The letter requests the property owners/residents inspect their own premises and resolve any issues prior to when the code enforcement officer returns.  The code enforcement officer follows up at the time they have noted in the letter and begins a formal notice procedure on any remaining issues.

This strategy is effective in educating property owners. Many owners are happy to comply with most of the code when they understand the expectations. Parking in the front yard is a violation in City A, but may have been perfectly acceptable at their prior home in City B. Offering the benefit of the doubt is a way to ease residents into the process.  This method can drastically improve the general curb appeal of any area quickly and can create neighborhood pride as improvements often trigger other improvements.  This tool is most suitable for minor issues in residential areas. Each area is different and the sweep should be customized.

Strategy #4: Strategic Application

To be effective long term code enforcement must be strategic. Code compliance is a valuable tool in comprehensive plan implementation. Identifying areas of focus can help in working toward redevelopment and preservation efforts. Focusing on specific areas or specific violations indicate a trend (the canary in the coal mine) can create positive visual change. This is especially true for commercial district code enforcement. Early signs of deterioration can be caught before they spread to an entire area.

Strategy #5: Easy Information Access

Citizens who report a complaint or receive a violation notice often check on the status or ask questions. It is frustrating to wait for an officer to return from the field to return a phone call. Making the information easily available to all staff helps tremendously with staff time and citizen frustration. Web based tracking is critical to this process. Code officers should take photos and spend time on the front end to make sure all staff can understand each case. All correspondence should be tracked on the case log. All staff members can be empowered to provide extensions and flexibility on any case within reason.

Strategy #6: Share Escalation

Often citizens are frustrated with the timeline code enforcement officers must use to provide due process to a property owner prior to moving to formal prosecution or fines. This process protects both parties. On the other side of the table, a citizen who has received a violation notice can often be disgruntled.

It is helpful to be able to escalate a disgruntled caller to another employee. This doesn’t always provide satisfaction, but many times it does help to end a difficult conversation. This prevents a single employee from being pushed too far and responding inappropriately. The escalation doesn’t always have to be to a supervisor; the act of simply discussing with another employee is often sufficient. Time can also be a tool used to deescalate. Asking to have another employee call the disgruntled citizen back later in the day can give both parties time to collect themselves.

Take Away

Code enforcement is an art, and finding the sweet spot in the process is critical to the longevity of the code officer and effectiveness of the program. These are battle-tested strategies to improve enforcement effectiveness by keeping the citizen experience in mind. Each strategy discussed focuses on how the process is designed. Mary Poppins stressed “Well Begun is Half-Done”. A little effort in the beginning on crafting the tone, approach, and citizen experience gets us to the fun part- seeing results and the impact on the community.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP – the job’s a game!” Mary Poppins.

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