Proactive home inspections: Syracuse, NY

Results and accomplishments

18.2%

During the 2017 pilot, housing units in the TOP territory had a compliance rate 18.2% higher than the rest of Syracuse: 57.7% compared to 39.5%.

229%

Pilot inspectors proactively identified 115 housing code violations during the 6-week pilot in 2017, 229% higher than other inspectors averaged over the same period.

2

Owners doubled their rate of successfully resolving “Unfit for Human Occupancy” violations between 2017 and 2020 in Syracuse, from 17% to 35%. This category represents some of the most urgent health and safety risks to tenants.

2

Since TOP was launched in 2017, Syracuse doubled its compliance rates both for health and safety violations (from 12% to 23%) and overall (from 16% to 33%).


  • From a neighborhood pilot to citywide: After a successful 6-week pilot in 2017, the Division of Code Enforcement successfully scaled the Tenant-Owner-Proactive (TOP) program across Syracuse. The city is now divided into 9 territories with roughly equal caseloads. Two inspectors are assigned to each one.
  • Proactive community engagement: Since the launch of the Syracuse TOP program, many violations are now identified during comprehensive, proactively scheduled inspections, rather than in response to a specific complaint. The Division of Code Enforcement increased case note documentation and phone calls with tenants and landlords by 43 percent.
  • Landlord self-compliance: With TOP clerks providing landlords windows of opportunity for pre-violation compliance, inspectors report that rapid self-compliance has become more common. As a result, overall code violations are down nearly 20 percent from 9,243 in 2015 to to 7,792 in 2019
  • Safe and healthy homes education: The Division of Code Enforcement launched the annual Healthy Housing 101 event. During the event, inspectors lead tenants and service providers through a house and show them how to identify health and safety violations. The events averaged roughly 100 tenants and landlords during the 2018 and 2019 events. The virtual event in 2020 (due to COVID-19) drew more than 200 viewers.

Overview

Summary

  • In Syracuse, many renters lived in homes with health and safety code violations. These problems went unaddressed for many reasons: residents did not understand how to file a complaint, many landlords prevented code inspections, and the City’s code enforcement lacked a formal system to track and follow-up on violations.

  • After a pilot study launched by then-Mayor Stephanie Miner’s administration showed strong results, Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration expanded the Tenant-Owner-Proactive Code Enforcement (TOP) model city-wide in 2018. The model reflected seven changes over the previous approach: assigned territories for inspectors, proactive community engagement, comprehensive inspections, real-time data collection, data-based route planning, enhanced customer service for tenants, and follow-up calls to owners. With this new model in place, code violations declined by nearly 20 percent between 2015 and 2019.

  • Keys to TOP’s success included piloting the program at a small scale to demonstrate its effectiveness; consistent support across two mayoral administrations; a data-centric approach, which allows inspectors to use real-time data to inform their work; extensive and individualized engagement with tenants, landlords, and inspectors to address each group’s concerns; and a focus on producing accessible educational materials to inform renters about their housing rights.

  • Obstacles the TOP program faced included difficulty building buy-in among some inspectors, tenant and landlords’ mistrust of the Division of Code Enforcement, issues with hiring and training inspectors to fill vacancies, and concerns about landlords blaming or retaliating against tenants when anonymous complaints resulted in an interior inspection.

What was the challenge?

  • Unsafe conditions for renters: Renters in Syracuse, many of whom are low-income residents of color and/or immigrants, often lived in housing units with health and safety code violations. These include smaller violations like mold and major structural hazards like poorly built staircases.
  • Reactive code enforcement: Typically, inspectors used home visits to look for specific violations related to a filed complaint. Inspectors rarely conducted comprehensive inspections during such visits.
  • A lack of awareness: Many residents were not aware of how to file a complaint or who to ask for help with housing safety issues. As a result, tenants with legitimate health and safety concerns likely never filed complaints.
  • Owners avoiding inspections: The city primarily issued fines for major violations, leaving smaller health and safety hazards, like windows that would not fully close, unaddressed. Fearing major costs, landlords often sought to deny inspectors entry.
  • A lack of follow up: Inspectors did not have a formal system to quickly and regularly check on open cases; as a result, some cases simply closed after a fine was paid, whether or not the violation was actually resolved.

What was the solution?

  • Tenant-Owner-Proactive (TOP) Code Enforcement: Syracuse TOP is the city's data-driven approach to code enforcement, which was designed through an intensive community engagement process. The program is made up of seven changes to its previous model: assigned territories for inspectors, proactive community engagement, comprehensive inspections, real-time data collection, data-based route planning, enhanced customer service for tenants, and follow-up calls to owners.
  • Assigned territories for inspectors: Inspectors are assigned a small territory in which they and a partner are responsible for ensuring all health and safety standards are met by owners. By working only within specific geographic zones and managing roughly equal caseloads (typically including between 900-1,100 rental units), inspectors deeply familiarize themselves with the housing stock and more frequently visit blocks at high risk for violations.
  • Proactive community engagement: Syracuse TOP inspectors cultivate strong relationships with tenants and landlords in their assigned territories through three types of community engagement: regularly walking their territory; presenting on code enforcement at community meetings in venues like churches and adult education classes; and hosting annual home health and safety education events. During these activities, inspectors seek to proactively schedule comprehensive inspections with tenants (rather than wait for a major issue to arise or complaint to be filed). They also speak with landlords about remediation strategies for potential violations. Tenants can request inspections, anonymously, at any time.
  • Comprehensive inspections: During each home visit, inspectors work through a comprehensive checklist of potential health and safety violations. This approach ensures inspectors prioritize thoroughness rather than speed, and increases the likelihood that they will proactively identify new violations unrelated to existing complaints.
  • Leveraging data collection and software: To plan routes and prioritize inspection areas within their territories, inspectors use “Building Blocks” software, a predictive modeling program for potential code violations. Inspectors also score each block's relative housing health on a regular basis using tablets in the field, which helps to inform the predictive model.
  • Tenant and landlord customer service: Shortly after a resident files a complaint, clerks contact landlords. The clerk gives the landlord a brief window (typically a few days) to resolve the issue before an inspection. This gives landlords a time-bound incentive to fix the problem before possibly facing a fine. After a case is closed, clerks calls tenants and landlords to get feedback on the experience.

What factors drove success?

  • Piloting the program: Syracuse launched the TOP program as a 6-week pilot in the Northside neighborhood, which has a high share of rental properties and violations. In 2016, the neighborhood had 1,068 code violations, nearly double the neighborhood with the second most violations.
  • Support from two mayors: Mayor Stephanie Miner and her successor, Mayor Ben Walsh, championed the program's expansion. They both encouraged the Division of Code Enforcement to scale up TOP by using the mayor’s Office of Accountability, Performance, & Innovation (API) to support the program’s design, data, and evaluation needs.
  • A data-centered approach: The Division of Code Enforcement, with support from the API team, incorporates data and evidence into nearly all aspects of the model. For instance, territories are carefully drawn to provide inspectors with similar caseloads; inspectors are provided with tablets to allow for real-time data collection and analysis; and inspectors use that analysis to carefully plan their routes.
  • Extensive, individualized stakeholder engagement: TOP staff members regularly engage tenants, landlords, and inspectors individually, allowing each group to provide input in a comfortable setting. For instance, for tenants, inspectors hold regular “Meet Your Inspector” events and attend ESL classes to share more about the program; landlords and inspectors, meanwhile, complete surveys and participate in interviews and focus groups.
  • Prioritizing accessibility and education: To ensure as many residents as possible understand their housing rights, the TOP program prioritizes making code enforcement accessible, including through developing education materials in multiple languages and bringing translators to community events. These materials emphasize tenant rights, such as filing complaints without fear of reprisal from landlords.

What were the major obstacles?

  • Inspector buy-in: Several veteran inspectors were unwilling to overhaul their day-to-day approaches to the job. Ultimately, three of the city’s 21 inspectors chose to retire or leave the division. Additionally, a union grievance was filed late in the expansion planning process, delaying citywide implementation by almost a year.
  • Mistrust and misperceptions: During various tenant and landlord engagement sessions, both groups expressed mistrust of the Division of Code Enforcement. Many tenants, for instance, believed they personally could be fined if a violation was found in their home. Meanwhile, some landlords felt the city actively sought to levy large fines without regard for remediation.
  • Talent pipeline: With some inspectors leaving the Division of Code Enforcement, Syracuse struggled to quickly hire and train new staff, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without being able to rapidly hire new inspectors, TOP staff had to redraw territories, which required significant support from the Department of Neighborhoods and Business.
  • Anonymous complaints: Despite a tenant's ability to anonymously file complaints (for instance, as a "concerned neighbor"), landlords often assume that tenants are responsible for initiating interior inspections. However, retaliation against a tenant for filing a complaint, including in the forms of eviction, raising rent, charging fines, or any other form of harassment, is explicitly outlawed by New York State Law.

Timeline

Implementation process

How did leaders confront the problem?

  • Health and safety hazards in rental units: For years, a high share of Syracuse renters, many of whom are low-income residents of color and recent immigrants, live in units with health and safety code violations. Hazards often go unreported or unresolved due to both a lack of enforcement and awareness of potential remediation options.
  • Mistrust from landlords: Landlords, wary of large fines, often seek to deny property access to inspectors, perpetuating a cycle of non-compliance.
  • Improving economic mobility through housing: Seeking to implement a program advancing economic mobility in her final year in office, Mayor Miner tasks the Office of Accountability, Performance, & Innovation (API) with researching solutions related to housing quality.
  • Human-centered research: Working closely with the Division of Code Enforcement, the API team spends eight months conducting extensive interviews and focus groups with stakeholders involved in the rental housing market. Their conclusion: tenants need a proactive inspection system built on trust between themselves, landlords, and inspectors, to ensure homes are safe and healthy.

How was the strategy designed?

  • Comprehensive suite of initiatives: The API team zeroes in on seven changes to code enforcement: assigned territories for inspectors, prioritizing community engagement, comprehensive inspections, real-time data collection, data-based route planning, enhanced customer service for tenants, and follow-up calls to owners. The program is founded on a guiding principle of proactive engagement and communication between the Division of Code Enforcement and each stakeholder group.
  • Dedicated territories for inspectors: Each inspector is assigned a dedicated territory. They are expected to develop relationships with tenants and landlords through community events and regular engagement as they walk the neighborhood during the course of their workday. This allows inspectors to familiarize themselves with the territory's housing stock, residents, and owners.
  • Leveraging data & software: The TOP program uses Building Blocks software, a predictive modeling tool, to help inspectors optimize their routes and visit areas that are more likely to have code violations. Inspectors also provide real-time health scores via tablet for each block of their territory as they conduct inspections. This data is then incorporated into the predictive model.
  • Committing to customer service: A team of clerks ensure a smooth customer service experience, including processing complaints, communicating timelines for compliance to landlords, and conducting extensive follow up with stakeholders to gather feedback.

How was the approach funded?

  • A grant for ideation: An existing 3-year, $1.35 million grant for government innovation and research from Bloomberg Philanthropies allowed API staff to dedicate significant hours to the 8-month research and program design process. Funds were restricted to use for staff and contracting, rather than program implementation.
  • Reallocating existing resources: The Syracuse TOP program did not require any additional funding; rather, the program simply reallocates existing resources. The only new costs are $3,420 per year for tablets, which are funded through the Division's existing budget.
  • COVID-19 causes budget shortfalls: Faced with severe budget constraints exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a talent shortage, the department dropped from 21 inspectors to 18, and from 5 clerks to 3. However, the city is now in the process of hiring to fill all of those roles.
  • State grant for software: As part of a nearly $1 million strategic housing grant the New York State Office of the Attorney General, the City of Syracuse received access to the Building Blocks software. The grant also included technical and implementation assistance from the software developer, Tolemi, and the Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
  • Fine revenue stable: Syracuse created the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication (BAA) in 2018 (unrelated to TOP) to enforce housing code standards using the legal system. Inspectors pass citations to the BAA for collection. As a result, fine revenues have increased since TOP launched.

How was the plan implemented?

  • Extensive stakeholder research: With a mandate from the mayor, a 2-person team from API develops and executes an 8-month research plan, including interviews and focus groups with landlords, tenants, and inspectors; data analysis; and weekly ride-alongs with inspectors to better understand the code enforcement process from each stakeholder’s perspective.
  • Pitching the mayor: With a plan informed by data, community input, and the Division of Code Enforcement, the API team pitches the TOP program to Mayor Miner. She quickly signs off on the recommended 6-week pilot. The Mayor oversees the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, whose director supervises the Division of Code Enforcement. The Code Enforcement Director manages each team of inspectors.
  • Piloting the program: The API team works closely with the Division of Code Enforcement to select and train two inspectors for the 6-week pilot. They are both open to change and have exhibited strong customer service skills. The program launches and the results are extremely promising.
  • Preparing to scale: With clear results and a supportive new mayor, the Division of Code Enforcement begins training inspectors on soft skills like customer service, as well as technical skills such as operating the Building Blocks software on new tablets. Data analysts from API and the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development draw and refine territories for each inspector.
  • Launching across the city: After inspectors are trained and assigned new territories, the city’s new approach to code enforcement begins. Inspectors start holding community events, meeting with tenants and landlords, and familiarizing themselves with each block of their new territory.

How was the approach measured and refined?

  • The case for scaling: With data collection and evaluation at the core of the TOP pilot, the Division of Code Enforcement made a clear, compelling case to expand the program in the midst of a mayoral transition.
  • Measuring success: The TOP program is driven by one underlying goal: code compliance. The Division of Code Enforcement collects numerous key performance indicators, such as complaints, violations, and community engagements, which are interim measures indicating progress toward compliance.
  • Real-time data collection: The TOP program changed the Division of Code Enforcement's approach to data collection. Each inspector uses a tablet in the field to record healthy and safe home data in real time. Previously, inspectors wrote notes by hand and a clerk manually entered the data later.
  • Prioritizing blocks: By using historical data and new software to predict which blocks are likely to have violations, inspectors are able to optimize their hours spent in the community meeting with tenants, conducting visual exterior inspections, and scheduling interior inspections.
  • Redrawing territories: To ensure each inspector has a manageable workload and to maximize community engagement opportunities, the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development plans to redraw territories every three years based on complaint and inspection data and stakeholder input.
Acknowledgments

Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Hannah Garty of the City of Syracuse API team; Adria Finch of the Syracuse API team (former); Ken Towsley of the Syracuse Division of Code Enforcement (former); Jake Dishaw of the Syracuse Division of Code Enforcement; and Michelle Sczpanski of the Syracuse Department of Neighborhood and Business Development.