Code enforcement is when the government fines people for the condition of their property. Typically, a code enforcement officer will be looking for violations of a city’s “nuisances” or “minimum housing standards” sections of its municipal code. Officers usually identify violations as part of routine patrols or based on tips, which are often anonymous. But many municipal codes have made otherwise harmless conditions illegal. That gives officers a pretext to come on people’s private property and harass innocent homeowners.
What Does Code Enforcement Look For?
Though codes can vary from city to city, there are a lot of commonalities. Some of the most common code violations include:
- Cracks in the driveway
- Chipped paint on a home’s siding
- High weeds and other overgrown vegetation
- Torn window or door screens
- Downed tree limbs
- Grass that’s grown too long
But plenty of municipalities have expanded code enforcement in absurd ways. The Institute for Justice has challenged ordinances that authorized fines for:
- Mismatched curtains
- Holding a barbeque in the front of a house.
- Piling a stack of firewood in the backyard
- Growing a vegetable garden in the front yard.
When a violation is identified, municipalities may give the owner an opportunity and grace period to fix the issue before issuing a fine. But many cities don’t require sending homeowners proper notice of a violation. So fines may accrue without a homeowner even being aware of an issue. Worse, some cities don’t just issue a one-time citation for a code violation. Instead, the citation sets a fine amount, and that amount accrues each and every day until the city confirms the violation has been fixed. As a result, fines can quickly snowball into thousands of dollars, even if the city didn’t properly notify the homeowner about the violation.
By generating revenue from fines and fees, code enforcement can be a form of “taxation by citation.” Instead of protecting the public and addressing genuine health and safety concerns, more and more cities are using code enforcement to raise revenue.
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Serafim Katergaris was forced to pay $1,000 to the New York Department of Buildings (DOB) for a code violation he did not commit, did not know about and had no chance to challenge. Now, he's fighting back.
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