By: Mark Allen, Cookingham-Noll Management Fellow
We all want our neighborhood to be a place we’re proud to call home. Unfortunately, blight in neighborhoods comes in many forms, and weakens the sense of community, degrading the quality of life for residents. Crumbling houses, vacant and dangerous buildings, trash and graffiti, and even overgrown weeds can mean the difference between a prosperous and inviting neighborhood, and one that needs more love. Kansas City’s Neighborhood Preservation Division (NPD) Code Enforcement Officers aim to identify and address the blight that can steal from residents a sense of community, safety, and quality of life; and they’re using data to do it.
NPD Code Enforcement Officers work throughout the city, inspecting individual properties against a set of standards defined by city ordinance to identify any issues of appearance, maintenance, or safety that can negatively impact the neighborhood. Often, inspections are set in motion by complaints reported to the city by concerned neighbors. NPD uses data to track the timeliness of their inspections, the types of violations found, and the rate of compliance following citations. With an active caseload of over 14,000, and only 46 Code Enforcement Officers, the City must continually assess how it distributes its resources to combat blight.
A top priority for NPD is the first step in its code enforcement process: initial inspections to determine whether a violation is present. Even with limited manpower and a growing caseload, the chart shows that NPD has consistently met its goal of completing 90% of initial inspections within 10 days of a violation being reported. However, during the most recent time period, 90% of initial inspections occurred within 13 days, extending the time it takes to address possible violations and issue citations – and therein lies a story of prioritization.
The logic behind prioritizing initial inspections is that a quicker first response will allow the property owner to be notified of their violations sooner and in turn hopefully abate the issues. To know for sure if this compliance has occurred, a re-inspection by the inspector is needed. The target timeframe for re-inspects, taking into account ordinance-mandated timeframes for violations (10 days for many nuisance violations and 30 days for many property violations) as well as mailing times, is 45 days. As the chart below shows, a choice to prioritize initial inspections has meant that timeframes for re-inspections are not meeting NPD’s target timeframe. And the lack of a timely re-inspection can mean that delinquent property owners are unmotivated to address issues in a timely way.
Recognizing the need to provide that timely follow-up, NPD has adjusted the formula for its daily work activities to add more re-inspections to the list. Although that may have played a role in pushing the timeframes up slightly for some initial inspections for May-July 2015, as you can see above, the median timeframe for re-inspections fell during the same time period.
A final chart adds an additional “wrinkle” to this story. Property owners are generally responsive to violation notices arising from Code Enforcement Officers’ initial inspections, the data shows. Upon notification, property owners voluntarily comply in over 70% of cases, making the necessary corrections to remove blighting conditions on their property.
Initial inspections appear to be highly productive at inspiring corrective actions by property owners; re-inspections are crucial follow-up actions to those property owners who are not initially responsive. How should NPD allocate its limited resources so as to have the biggest impact on blight reduction?
NPD continues to try new models of deployment and test their effectiveness in eliminating violations and reducing their caseload; the division is also open to opportunities to change the paradigm, such as utilizing volunteers to assist with part of the code enforcement process or sending a letter in advance of the initial inspection. Importantly, as new approaches like this are piloted, the City can record and analyze data to assess effectiveness and test hypotheses. These measurements can be powerful tools, inspiring new solutions to reduce blight in our neighborhoods. That’s how the City and residents can use data to love thy neighborhood.