One of Kent’s challenges is sustaining quality neighborhoods with a comparably older housing stock and a high percentage of rental. The thing is, time keeps marching forward, so aging housing is a problem every city will eventually deal with (it’s not just a Kent problem). The question is how will we respond to the challenge. If you look closely at the older houses along West Main Street you see what’s possible when older houses receive a little TLC. I know families that have moved out of Kent’s new housing tracts just so they could have a chance to restore one of these timeless beauties. Not everyone is as motivated as these folks, so the property investment “safety net” are the inspectors we have on staff that educate, inform and, when necessary, enforce city codes that relate to property maintenance. It’s a thankless job but these are the staff that are on the front lines of fighting blight.
Blight is contagious, and it will creep through good neighborhoods and turn them bad. But so is reinvestment and when a couple of residents start, it’s usually not long before others follow. Admittedly, it’s harder when the property owners don’t live in the property to see what their neighbors (or their tenants) are doing and that’s usually how the city ends up getting involved.
For years, the city has managed code enforcement on a complaint basis. I’ve worked in other cities and that’s a fairly common approach. It keeps the focus mostly on the “worst offenders” and it keeps code enforcement more of a low profile function, with less government intervention — aka less of “big brother” watching or bothering you.
The downside to this approach is that it is reactionary which means you’re always trying to catch up to the problems that are already out there. If the problem wasn’t so contagious I’d say chasing it is a reasonable tactic to take, but the trouble is, when you chase blight, by the time you catch it, it’s had a chance to infect other properties.
So while the complaint approach may lessen the likelihood that you’ll ever be visited by a code enforcement officer, I’m not really sure we’re doing you any favors, because in the meantime blight is spreading ever closer to your home and by the time we knock on your door it could be too late.
You may recall that “Neighborhood Enrichment” has been a buzz word at city hall this year and code enforcement plays a critical role. We’ve talked a lot about how we do the code functions, what’s working and what’s not, and how we can make a bigger impact in the neighborhoods. We’re busy recruiting neighbors to form neighborhood councils. We’re organizing clean up teams. We’re planning neighborhood events and we’re out talking to neighborhood groups.
The goal is to restore the sense of neighborhood in order to inspire greater care in properties in the neighborhoods, and then we can let peer pressure inspire more responsible property maintenance behavior. Where that falls short, we can fall back on our code enforcement to step in and bring people along with the rest of their neighbors.
To do that, we’ve spent a couple of sessions with City Council this spring and summer expanding the city’s authority under the code to compel better maintenance standards. We’ve expanded code requirements, tightened standards and raised penalties, and we’re also committing to a more balanced, pro-active and reactive enforcement approach.
To put the expanded authority to work, Council has authorized taking the one part-time position that the city had to perform the majority of code functions, and make that a 40 hour a week full time job. That change should dramatically improve our ability to sustain gentle but persistent pressure on problem properties, and to get out in front of the problem by having someone available every day to watch where blight is heading and intervene before it takes root.
These are just the start. We’re looking at other staffing changes that we can do to bring more focus on property issues. As you can see in the two internal memo’s below, we’re also enlisting the help of fire inspectors to do more, and we’re applying for grant funds to help us expand police presence in Kent neighborhoods. These are all small but steady and deliberate steps we’re taking to stop talking about problems in our neighborhoods and start building better neighborhoods right now.