I live in a neighborhood that once had a rather high percentage of slum properties. You all know the types. These are the places where weeds are three feet tall, the cars are parked up on the yard, and half a year’s worth of litter has piled up around the front door. The property owner doesn’t care if his investment looks like a dump, and is unmotivated to clean things up, as long as he continues to draw the rent checks.
Trashy homes often have a negative impact on adjacent residences, which can lead to urban flight. And, once the homeowners and conscientious renters have left, the neighborhood becomes a less desirable place to live. Without anyone left to “mind the store”, the instances of trashy behavior increases. A neighborhood that sends a strong message of apathy, is more prone to vandalism, litter, graffiti, and loitering. Emboldened by the lack of neighborhood concern, meth labs, prostitution houses, and party pads for drug use and under aged alcohol consumption soon follow.
The Broken Window syndrome
Neighborhood police officers used to refer to this as the Broken Window syndrome, based on a theory by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, who wrote “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” in the March 1982 issue of Atlantic Monthly. The Broken Window theory explained that signs of decay, such as abandoned vehicles, litter, broken windows and graffiti led to rapid neighborhood deterioration, resulting in increased crime (source: www.cityofseattle.net/police/prevention). While the broken window theory has come under attack by critics, in our neighborhood, the trickling down effect of the “broken window” was very visible.
On those blocks where properties had been turned into slums, we saw the highest instances of drug use, teenage alcohol use, and other crimes including burglary and rape. Adjacent neighbors who were worried about their safety sold their homes. These places were quickly picked up by slumlords who rented to other miscreants. What were once viable family homes became flop houses, and the crime statistics for our neighborhood climbed rapidly.
Operation: Save the Neighborhood
There were a handful of neighbors who were committed to the neighborhood. They had lived in the area their entire lives and weren’t willing to let the neighborhood go to ruin without a fight. The neighbors organized themselves into a loosely formed association, and “Operation: Save the Neighborhood” was born.
The first step was cleaning up the neighborhood. Neighbors painted over graffiti, planted trees, wrote grants to replace broken sidewalks and missing street lights, and reclaimed neglected right of way areas. In the process of “Operation: Save the Neighborhood,” neighbors also learned about a city department called “Code Enforcement.”
Department of City Code Enforcement
Every city has a Planning and Zoning department, sometimes referred to as Planning and Development Services. This agency basically oversees the growth of a city through zoning and by interpreting existing building codes. Most building codes have sections dealing with what is allowed and what’s not. Even though our neighbors were a pretty sharp group of people, we had no idea that there existed laws preventing the very type of behavior that contributed to the decay of the neighborhood.
Some of the things that were not allowed under our city’s existing city ordinance included:
Living in an RV in a residential zone
Selling used cars out of your property
Allowing trash and litter to accumulate on the property
Allowing weeds to grow out of control
Having more than 3 dogs or 5 cats
Junked cars or cars up on blocks
Parking in the front yard or up on sidewalks
Leaving upholstered furniture out in the yard
Burning trash or having bonfires
Parking semi trucks on residential streets
Running an automotive shop out of your garage
Converting your house or garage into an apartment without permits
Building storage sheds in the setbacks
Running a business from a home
Having frequent, nighttime parties
Neighbors began reporting properties that were in violation of City Code, and enforcement officers were sent to the offending residences. Slowly we watched junked cars get hauled off, weeds mowed down, and accumulated garbage hauled to the dump. Illegal duplex conversions and large scale home businesses were reversed, and illegally constructed utility buildings were torn down or removed.
The Neighborhood Contact Officer program
In addition to cleaning up the neighborhood, concerned neighbors formed a partnership with the local police department. The City Police had recently introduced a community policing program with Neighborhood Contact officers being assigned to certain parts of town. The neighbors met the area NCO at a neighborhood barbecue, and working together, identified problem areas. The police began patrolling the neighborhood on a regular basis, and neighbors were quick to report suspicious behavior such as drug houses and meth labs. Party homes were also identified.
It took several years of vigilance on behalf of the neighbors and police department, but since that time, the area has turned from a slum to a desirable inter city neighborhood. Property values have sky rocketed, crime has dropped, and home ownership is on the rise. There are still a few slumlords lurking on the fringes on the neighborhood, but things are a far cry from where they were ten years ago.
The neighborhood continues to monitor area activity, but has also taken a proactive stance by organizing neighborhood cleanup days and planting trees, pocket parks, and street gardens as part of a beautification effort. The association distributes newsletters, has regular neighborhood meetings, and attends City Council and Planning & Zoning hearings at City Hall.
How do you reclaim your neighborhood?
The first step is gathering up a group of concerned neighbors and start cleaning things up. Organize your own cleanup day!
The second step should be a trip to City Hall. Learn about your city’s code enforcement department, and purchase a manual of city ordinances. Some cities even offer these service free of charge on the web. Once you have an idea of what is allowed and not, you can file Code Complaints on the slumlords who are junking up your neighborhood.
The third step, is to contact your local Police Department and ask if they have a community policing program. Get to know the officer assigned to your area. You might also purchase the printed police code. This manual contains even more city ordinances which deal with behavior issues, such as disorderly conduct, amplified music, and disturbing the peace.
The final step is to stay informed by joining your neighborhood association. A neighborhood association differs from a homeowners association, and usually encompasses a collection of neighborhoods or a certain district of town. It is the neighborhood association that receives all notice of proposed development in your area. In areas of perceived blight, sometimes developers will apply for a rezone to build a structure that is not compatible with your neighborhood. It may be a commercial building that could create more traffic, or a convenience station or fast food restaurant that is open 24 hours a day. High intensity uses such as these, can further contribute to the decay of intercity neighborhoods.
Once our neighborhood became actively involved in the planning and zoning process, we discovered that these redevelopment decisions are often made without any neighborhood input. As one of our local Councilmen once told me, “How are we to know what the neighborhood thinks of these projects, when no one bothers to write us a letter or show up for the hearing?”
Neighborhood preservation begins with active involvement, staying informed, and becoming acquainted with your neighbors. For more information about reclaiming your neighborhood, contact the planning and code enforcement divisions of your city’s Planning and Zoning department and your local police department.