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A community-based solution to city code violations could be more effective than fines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Maintaining a home can be a challenge for anyone, and that is especially true for low-income homeowners who may struggle to meet city standards. As Jodi Fortino of member station KCUR reports, that can lock them into a seemingly endless cycle of code violations and fines.

JODI FORTINO, BYLINE: In hundreds of cities across the country, code enforcement is the primary tool for keeping properties up to a certain standard - things like peeling paint, cracked driveways or overgrown yards. John Baccala is the community liaison for Kansas City's Neighborhoods and Housing Services Department. He says the codes are there for a reason.

JOHN BACCALA: Our ultimate goal is to keep neighborhoods beautified and to get problems addressed before they get out of hand.

FORTINO: But some residents think that code violations are creating more barriers to making homeownership affordable, especially for those who can afford it the least. Jordan Schiele is with the Kansas City group Jerusalem Farm that repairs homes for low-income families. He says homeowners who are often targeted for code violations may lack the resources to keep their homes up to city standards in the first place. And once they receive a citation, they face the city's timeline to clean up or repair their property or, as a last resort, end up in housing court where they face fines.

JORDAN SCHIELE: It doesn't actually help them access resources. It just drains them of the resources that they have when they pay fines. They have to take time off of work to go to court, which oftentimes, they're working hourly jobs.

FORTINO: Schiele says some homeowners can get stuck in a cycle where they will fix their violation but may be cited for another problem on their property when code enforcement returns to follow up. Kenneth Jenkins has experienced that firsthand. He bought his house in Kansas City three years ago and says the city violations poured in just weeks after moving in.

KENNETH JENKINS: That right there is a whole new ballgame 'cause I'll tell you what - sometimes I wish I wasn't buying a house. I'm being dead serious. I mean, all the stuff that they want to sit there and do, man - it's like, you want to nitpick me for what?

FORTINO: Jenkins has been cited for numerous violations - things like keeping untagged cars on his property that he repairs. Susan Hawfield, with the nonprofit group Rebuilding Together, says their affiliates get referrals from code enforcement agencies to help homeowners like Jenkins, who may lack resources to fix their violations. She says code enforcement is aimed at keeping homes and neighborhoods safe and healthy, but it's more than that.

SUSAN HAWFIELD: Your next-door neighbors, you may not know what they're living with or what is going on inside their home or what their challenges are. So it's really important that we all get to know our neighbors.

FORTINO: Hawfield's group connects homeowners with a host of services - things like food donations, community centers or after-school programs for kids. And homeowners often end up with these code violations at the hands of their own neighbors since city code enforcement is often a complaint-driven process. Schiele's group says that's why it also takes a community-based approach. Last year, it partnered with a neighborhood association to handle all of its code citations. By working directly with residents, he says they were able to handle 80% of complaints without resorting to fines.

SCHIELE: We're dealing with different cultures. We're dealing with different people. And so I think when you have community-based organizations, they know what's best for their community.

FORTINO: Meanwhile, first-time homeowner Kenneth Jenkins, who's been cited multiple times by Kansas City inspectors, wishes his neighbors had reached out to him first instead of reporting his property to the city. But he says with no community program in place in his neighborhood, he finds himself waiting for his next citation.

For NPR News, I'm Jodi Fortino in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.