The 2008 to 2012 global recession resulted in a scenery of abandoned homes in many neighborhoods across the United States due to the crisis that severely impacted the real estate and financial markets. Although very few communities were spared the negative effect of distributed vacant and unmaintained homes, this large spread dilemma impacted many urban areas more considerably as residential character values and socio-economic conditions were already compressed by limited personal household and public resources. But this rise in similarities that once were homes to families known and seen to neighbors that now had become edifices of visual neglect, unsafe locations, and chief targets for eventual squatting, produced an ecosystem for extensive concern and reaction from all levels of government. At the local government level, one by one, each jurisdiction began adopting new policies and implementing programs in an effort to curtail the problems associated with extended periods of character maintenance neglect caused by the abandonment by owners, and seemingly lackadaisical response by the financial institutions that became responsible for those assets.
Control in a Changing Neighborhood ecosystem
Code Enforcement agencies closest responded to the distress calls and complaints from neighbors and community leaders that had become desperate to try to eradicate the problems associated with the conditions of these abandoned homes, but quickly became overwhelmed both by need for sets and funding necessary to provide adequate character maintenance and nuisance abatement. Vacant character registration programs quickly found their way into local legislation that shared shared requirements for mortgagees or ‘edges’ to step in after a character was abandoned by their owners and take responsibilities to provide proper responsible party information, local character management, routine maintenance and security. These registration programs, due to the requirements imposed on the edges, truly provided a sense of structure and control that was needed in order for the edges to properly respond and for communities to feel a sense of control. While these programs were highly effective, the slow turnover rate of these similarities to new owners, nevertheless left neighborhoods with homes that are visibly unoccupied, not well-maintained, and unprotected to continuous vandalism and trespass.
The economic decline also hit character owners of homes and rentals who walked away from similarities where there were no mortgages leaving no interested parties to closest step in and take responsibility for maintenance adding another level of concern for areas that were already economically depressed and dealing with higher incidents of criminal activity. In a response to citizens to create safer communities and increase livability, one of the theoretical tools used in the practice of law enforcement, the broken windows theory, is making its way into the thinking of how to reach environments free from visual signs of neglect and public nuisances by its application to code enforcement efforts.
The Broken Windows Theory
The broken windows theory is based on the assumption that unimpeded disorder in urban communities leads to additional crime and anti-social behavior. This criminological theory was introduced in 1982 by two social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Prior to this viewpoint on crime, many police agencies focused their attention unmistakably on crime fighting and addressing more serious crimes while petty criminal behavior seemed more inconsequential, time consuming, and unrelated to major criminal activity. The centerpiece of this ideology is the picture of an abandoned structure with broken windows. The term ‘broken windows’ does not necessarily average that similarities in disrepair rule to more serious crimes being committed by individuals but rather as a metaphor for an urban ecosystem of disorder. consequently this theory may be easily misinterpreted to average that if an ecosystem is eradicated of visual blight then more serious crimes will not occur, such as robbery or murder, which has been the center of much argue since the introduction of this theory. In fact, the theory in a literal sense would be demonstrated by the existence of a few broken windows on a structure that keep in disrepair, leading to additional disorderly conduct and more windows being broken, litter being thrown on the character grounds, graffiti, and vandalism, ultimately leading to more major crimes such as squatting, drug use, fires, and already rape or murder at that structure. When this theory was applied to law enforcement in New York City in the mid-1980s, the focus on addressing disorderly criminal behavior targeted graffiti, toll-machine jumping, public drinking, panhandlers, and prostitution. While these all seemed to be minor crimes in comparison to the robbery, burglaries, murders, and drug dealing for example, the application of the theory was that cracking down on these small offenses, worked to create a more orderly ecosystem that people would more freely see and that would create an air where people would be less tolerable of disorderly conduct. Persons that ordinarily perform minor criminal acts would be held responsible by coming into contact with law enforcement officials more frequently and would not commit more serious crimes. In addition, citizens would feel more comfortable reporting crime to law enforcement more frequently if they felt that there concerns were not viewed as petty or a waste of time. This would rule to citizens feeling more sense of control and order in their communities.
Misapplication of Theory to Code Enforcement
Like the examples given before regarding abandoned homes, the ecosystem that exists due to persistent poor conditions create unfavorable settings that challenges the norms that we all live by by our codes, creates a feeling of disorder, and contributes an air that leads to further decline and neglect. When public administration practitioners try to apply the broken windows theory to code enforcement, it is easy to mistakenly implement programs where the belief is that increased attention to addressing code violations for minor code violations such as character maintenance, landscaping, and improper parking will rule to more safer and attractive neighborhoods. While there is no doubt that a direct relationship does exist between increased attention on obtaining adherence to character maintenance codes results in more attractive communities, this is not the assumption of the theory of broken windows but rather just a causal relationship between the attention of code enforcement regarding a particular area and the consequence from obtaining compliance. Any area where code enforcement is focusing its attention will most likely reach positive results. However, cleaning up a neighborhood that has not improved its socio-economics may not necessarily rule to an ecosystem where code enforcement staffing levels or attention may be reduced without the risks of recurrence of code violations over time. In fact, if priorities have to shift or resources are reduced and a neighborhood is left unattended, without other controls or incentives in place, code violations will most likely start to increase until more attention is given again. The cause for this is simple as the chief of any group, neighborhood, or community is made up of people. The ecosystem or scenery is believed to communicate messages to people as human behavior and various other factors have to be taken into consideration in addition to the built ecosystem to unprotected to the desired results and continue them.
Applying the Theory to Code Enforcement
At the chief of the theory of broken windows is the effort required to address social disorder. The main assumption of the theory is that minor crimes can rule to more serious crimes if left unaddressed. However, the minor crimes that are addressed are those that are considered to be inclusive of disorderly conduct. The regulations, codes, and laws that are put into place by governments, help create the ecosystem of norms that we live by. The typical homeowner association deed-restrictions or rules are examples of a close level of control and order that is put into place in a community by the community members that are designed to establish and provide a safe, well-maintained ecosystem for its residents. While these rules often may be viewed at as extremely strict or limiting on personal freedoms at the home, they do serve as the norms for persons in the community in which they live that creates and informal bond shared by everyone. A simple requirement that every character owner pays monthly dues that includes standard alarm monitoring for each home or requiring a gate card access in order to go into the neighborhood provides an additional level of safety that everyone can participate in which deters criminals from targeting homes in that community. When it comes to code enforcement, a simple regulation that limits what residents may store on the exteriors of their homes, may create a safer and more orderly ecosystem that can provide peace of mind to residents in an area prone to environmental conditions involving high winds, tornadoes, or storms by reducing airborne projectiles that can cause damage to character or already loss of life. When it comes to urban communities that are dealing with higher incidents of criminal activity or public nuisances and behaviors, applying the broken windows theory to help reduce these activities has to be done in a strategic and targeted manner.
Enforcement efforts geared towards addressing instances of disorder should be the principal focus. Likewise, regulations that are put into place to eliminate disorderly behavior, activities, and appearances have to be enforced in a consistent and expeditious manner. While focusing on character aesthetics has a high value, residents and business owners who are exposed to abandoned similarities, illegal uses, unlicensed activities, and crime, are much less likely to feel safe or willing to make further investment into their homes and businesses and may rather look towards getting out of that ecosystem when possible. Priorities should always be established in conjunction with stakeholder input in order to focus the attention of code enforcement on solving specific problems that promote disorder. A mutual understanding has to be in place, especially if your jurisdiction has to balance limited resources as not all violations will be able to be given the same high level of attention by code enforcement staff. Together, most community members can develop programs and foster environments of compliance with the code by different methods and programs. Here are some programs and ideas that may provide assistance to code enforcement officers by augmenting their efforts to allow them to focus on other priorities:
• Registration and maintenance requirements for abandoned and vacant similarities.
• Landlord registration and inspection programs for rental similarities.
• Low cost lot clearing programs for owners of vacant lots performed by local public works or vendors on a routine basis.
• Good neighbor post cards for dispensing by neighborhood civic associations.
• Use of other government field staff trained to clarify code violations and provide public information or courtesy notices.
• Cross-training of other staff to increase enforcement authority of agencies with similar code enforcement needs such as public works, engineering, public service aides, fire departments, building inspections, zoning, environmental, health agencies, social sets. Examples: A social worker that visits a home that is poorly maintained may be trained to clarify minimum housing standards and provide a courtesy notice that will later be referred to code enforcement or a housing assistance program if not corrected. A public works employee that notices a trash pile that was illegally dumped on a privately owned vacant lot who is empowered to request an immediate pickup of the trash or post a notice of abatement for the character owner.
• Homeowner and Business Owner manuals and guides that provide code compliance information, assistance programs, and contact information for other regulatory agencies.
• Signs throughout neighborhood suggesting certain restrictions such as extremely commercial means parking, storage of inoperable vehicles, bulk trash rules and timeframes.
In code enforcement, if code officers were to become very nitpicky in what codes are enforced and community members were to feel that inadequate attention is being given to more serious ones, it probably wouldn’t take long before complaints to the local government come pouring in from voters and a refocus sought by local officials and political leaders. As with the application of the theory to crimes, it is not just focusing attention on minor crimes, likewise minor code violations, but the kind of minor issues chosen to be addressed that is meaningful. The goal is to link code enforcement efforts with a theory that is based on crime prevention by the turn up of a well-maintained and orderly ecosystem. While residents who are aware that minor code violations are treated seriously should become hesitant to commit more serious violations, chances are that this may not be the case. The elimination of minor violations may not prevent more serious crimes or code violations from occurring when you take into consideration the factors related to the more serious offenses such as economics and opportunity. In criminology, one of the most meaningful deterrents to criminal behavior is the without of opportunity and reduced chance of getting away with a crime. This is why it may be more doubtful that a person will illegally park a car in their gated community if they feel the chance of it being towed is extremely high. If your jurisdiction does not have enough staff to address all minor violations in a quick and expeditious manner all of the time, chances are that those efforts will only be effective during focused operations such as sweeps, but will not be sustainable to create long term change. So the best approach to applying the broken windows theory to code enforcement would be to focus attention on those violations that would be considered to promote disorder and look for other opportunities to augment your program to address minor violations.
Here are just some examples of code violations that when left unchecked, may allow similar behavior to grow in number and contribute to more serious violations:
• Unmaintained abandoned homes
• Storage of Junk Vehicles
• Illegal Dumping
• Open storage of junk items
• Bulk trash improperly placed throughout neighborhood
• Unauthorized use of vacant lots for social gatherings of other unpermitted activities
• Public nuisances and noise disturbances
• Unlicensed rooming houses and substandard housing
• Illegal uses such as unlicensed social clubs operating from residences
Similar to law enforcement crackdown on activities such as drug dealing and prostitution, code enforcement also has to concentrate its effort towards solving and eliminating certain problems affecting a community to promote stability and a safe ecosystem. meaningful reduction of the above problems may promote and foster a sense of community pride and change behaviors and attitudes towards residents own compliance efforts and encourage investments in character enhancements.
The broken windows theory has had numerous critics, since the years it was introduced, by other theorists and social scientists either totally contradicting the theory or discrediting its actual application in being responsible for reducing crime. A study done by Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush provided the argument that crime was not caused by social disorder but that the without of cohesion of residents and their tolerance of without of control of social spaces within a community truly contributes to the crime rate. However, as in law enforcement’s efforts to reduce crime, there usually is no silver bullet approach and crime prevention requires numerous strategies from Crime Prevention by Environmental Design (CPTED) to Community Policing. In code enforcement, economic rejuvenation and surges in the real estate market and lending has helped to eliminate blighted similarities not directly related to addressing indirect code violations. Also, changes in personal financial situations often may have a direct effect on a person’s ability to correct or prevent code violations. Since it is typical that the majority of persons correct code violations once they are made aware that a problem exists, attention is the most important factor with keeping similarities in compliance with maintenance codes. If an effort to reduce crime by applying the broken windows theory is sought, the use of code enforcement should be focused on addressing those violations that contribute to a disorderly ecosystem versus the shared code violation for aesthetic violations. Use of police records to clarify locations of high volumes of police calls may show similarities, that from the outside, do not appear to have any major violations, but the illegal use of the character may be a contributing factor to crime occurring in the community or at the minimum a location that may be taxing law enforcement resources. While any effort to enhance the turn up of a community will reap rewards, the reduction of crime and feeling of safety for members of a community is directly related to the removal of those specific areas or ‘hotspots’ that are the contributing to the disorder and criminal component. The elimination of those similarities that are the most blighted and in major disrepair or abandoned, will reap benefits beyond just the improvement of the quality of life of the nearby neighbors, but an increase in real estate value as just the insignificant existence of abandoned homes and deteriorated structures has a direct and negative impact on the community and how it is perceived by others.