October is National Code Compliance Month, and Brian Rice has a simple message for our readers.
“Be a good neighbor,” he said. “The main point is to try and understand the other person’s perspective.”
As a code enforcement officer for the City of Houston Department of Neighborhoods Inspections and Public Service division, having that type of empathy and compassion is essential to the job, while working with residents to maintain the city’s health and safety code standards.
A former law enforcement officer from Newark, N.J., Rice is one of 37 such officers assigned to DON and tasked with conducting residential code enforcement and responding to neighborhood complaints related to overgrown lots, dangerous vacant buildings, trash and junk accumulation on private properties, and junked motor vehicles.
City code enforcement officers can also be found in the Houston Fire Department and Houston Public Works. Their duties include identifying and removing safety hazards, nuisances, unhealthy conditions and other city codes that keep Houston safe, clean and comfortable.
“Department of Neighborhoods Code Enforcement Officers are frontline workers in the battle against blight,” said DON director Dr. TaKasha Francis. “They face innumerable dangers daily as they work in our communities to combat vacant buildings, trash, tall grass and weeds, graffiti, and inoperable vehicles.
"Their hard work and responsiveness enhance our quality of life and make our communities cleaner, healthier, and safer," she said. "The professionalism of our code enforcement officers is second to none, and we salute them for their outstanding work!”
Doing the job is often not as cut and dry. Balancing code enforcement with empathy presents its own challenges especially during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Rice said among the challenges he faces on the job include residents who refuse to cooperate or encountering situations where there are properties that appear to have been abandoned.
“There are situations where people own property and have relatives who don’t want to take responsibility for it and fall into a situation where it’s in a state of disrepair. That’s one of the main ones,” he said.
Rice said although the officers are licensed by state of Texas, they can’t take certain actions without due process.
“When you have situations where you cannot make contact with folks or there is no one to make contact with, it creates a legal situation that prolongs us making corrections on the property,” he explained.
Rice said the department’s purpose is not just to enforce code, but also to work with residents to help bring the community into compliance. “When you have situations where you have an individual that doesn’t cooperate with that, we have legal recourse, but that usually takes time and people want fast results,” he said.
Karen Davidson, a code enforcement officer team leader, said the officers try to be reasonable and fair and try to treat people how they want to be treated.
“With COVID-19 going on, there are a lot of outlying factors that are causing stress,” she said. “People are a little more reactionary than they would normally be when confronted with the expense of trying to maintain property.”
“It’s a matter of trying to find that healthy balance of getting them to bring it into compliance and appeasing the person who called in the complaint and trying to be the mediator between the two parties so that they feel like they’re both being heard and respected,” she said.
Health and safety aspects also factor into the job, Davidson said. “Every time there’s a lot of storage in the yard or the grass gets high, it promotes rodents which destroys structures and cause fires. You’ve got mosquitos that will harbor in any little pool of water, which can spread disease,” she said.
The division also focuses on parks and schools where kids can walk safely back and forth to school or playing in a park. “We do sweeps in those blighted areas to try and address those certain concerns,” she said.
Rice said being empathetic is a must to be an effective code enforcement officer.
“Patience is something that’s required. You must be able to communicate with the public. You can’t come in with this ‘badge heavy’ attitude in situations like these. You’re dealing with people’s homes,” he said.
“This is personal. Whether it’s that old car that belonged to their dad or their mom who passed, you must approach that with a different attitude. We strive to work with people as opposed to enforcing the law. It challenges us to be better.”
Communication is also a factor. Davidson said who is delivering the message is as important as the message itself.
“Sometimes people work better with different people. I’ve got people on my team who’ve tried to approach someone, and sometimes someone else with a different approach can get the issue resolved,” she said.
Reggie Harris, deputy assistant director, DON Inspections and Public Service, said one of the things the division does during its interview process is to make sure potential code enforcement officers understand the importance of having compassion for their community.
“This job is the greatest job in the world because it gives you the opportunity to change the quality of life in communities through code enforcement,” he said. “You’re the only hope for some of these neighborhoods in communities to allow them to live a higher standard. They depend on us to do that through code enforcement.”
Harris said the division’s main goal is to gain compliance through education and educating the people. “We want our inspectors to own their communities and understand the challenges in their communities,” he said.
He also said National Code Compliance Month demonstrates how code enforcement affects the quality of life within any neighborhood and community.
“We’re the ones who makes sure people’s lawns are mowed, make sure the trash and debris are cleaned up and taken care of. That’s where the elderly neighbor who lives next door to an unkempt property of high weeds and grass that has no rodents, snakes or mice or things of that nature that affects their quality of life and where they live,” he said.
“It sets a minimal standard throughout a community that enhances that quality of life and the value of their property. We focus on that. To do what we do, you have to love people.”