City of Syracuse- Housing Code Violations

Anna Kambhampaty
Feb 13, 2018 · 7 min read

One of the biggest issues with Syracuse’s housing system is the disconnect between renters and their landlords, which leads to dangerous housing code violations left unfixed. The issue is a multi-faceted community, housing, and public health problem. I worked with the Bloomberg Innovation team to research and investigate this issue.

Understanding the Issue

The rental code violation issue serves as fuel to many other problems within the city. Housing displacement of lowest income households negatively affects academic performance by children of lowest income households due to high residential mobility, for one. Further, an entire slew of health issues are associated with poor housing conditions.

Unsafe, unhealthy rental properties caused by rental code violations left unreported or ignored when reported are the root to many of the city’s other issues.

Lower income families are less likely to report code violation issues. At the same time, these families are also more likely to have issues.

My job was to understand why this was the case and figure out how we could get low-income renters to report code violations.

Assumptions we made:

  1. Code violations existed that were not being reported by renters.
  2. The existing process for reporting these violations is not easy.
  3. Low income renters have trouble finding affordable housing; displacement from their current housing is a huge fear for this reason.

User Research

Interview Protocol

We reached out to renters and landlords around the city to understand their stances on code violations. We asked questions along the lines of:

To Renters:

  1. Can you identify a code violation?
  2. Do you understand what an actual fix vs. a “band-aid” fix is?
  3. Have you reported code violations in the past?
  4. Can you show us your process for reporting a code violation?
  5. What about this process is bothersome?
  6. Do you know your landlord’s name?
  7. Can you describe your relationship with your landlord?

To Landlords:

  1. Can you identify a code violation?
  2. Do you understand what an actual fix vs. a “band-aid” fix is?
  3. Can you show us your process for handling a code violation?
  4. What is your relationship with your renters?
  5. Are there any you know by name?
  6. How many properties do you manage?
  7. Are there any types of renters that are particularly hard to deal with? In what ways?

Interviews were conducted over the phone & in-person.

Insights

Through conducting interviews with renters across the city, I was able to unearth some insights as to why these renters were not reporting issues:

  1. Renters did not understand what was or was not a code violation.
  2. Renters did not understand why certain code violations were dangerous.
  3. Renters did not understand the difference between actual fixes for code violations and “band-aid” fixes (i.e. when a landlord simply paints over mold rather than properly removing it).
  4. Renters were afraid of worsening their relationship with their landlord, which could lead to unfair eviction.

Interviews with landlords revealed:

  1. Landlords were surprised at the number of unreported code violations.
  2. Most landlords were not familiar with their renters identities and situations.
  3. Landlords did not have positive views of low-income renters.

This last insight we gained from renters was especially important. We didn’t understand why renters didn’t want their apartments to be fixed, but we realized they feared eviction. It is actually illegal, in the City of Syracuse, to evict a renter based on their reporting of a code violation. Clearly, renters did not know this.

This spoke to a bigger issue at hand. Not only was the city doing a poor job of informing the renters on their rights, there was a clear disconnect between renters and their landlords. The relationship in most cases was poor, if one even existed.

What are others doing to solve this problem?

Syracuse is not the only city with this issue. Through talking with other Bloomberg i-teams and looking at other cities’ rental codes, we were able to identify some tactics that may work to mitigate Syracuse’s issue:

  • Civic hackathon to create an interactive mobile app that contains searchable and up-to-date information on rental registry, code and lead violation properties
  • Opt out of interior inspection instead of opt in on the rental registry application; staff schedules inspection proactively
  • Online rental registration & code reporting system as simple as using Google Forms
  • Educate low-income renters by targeting small rental buildings tenants using similar proactive programs as TOP
  • Rent Escrow Account Program (REAP)

The REAP is being used in the City of Los Angeles and seems to be working very well. The city has an active presence in dealing with code violations through this policy-based approach. This is a program in which if a code violation is not fixed within a given timeframe, the renter can pay their rent into an Escrow Account to the city. The city then holds the rent until the landlord complies and fixes the violation.

As the user research shows, the issue, at its core, lies in education of rental codes and a poor landlord-renter relationship. Though the REAP implementation seemed to work in another city, we realized that it would not necessarily suit Syracuse, as renters would not know how to take advantage of it and might still fear unfair eviction.

What’s next?

The Wisdom of the Crowd Approach

“The collective knowledge of a group of people as expressed through their aggregated actions or opinions, regarded as an alternative to specialist or expert knowledge.”

We sent out a press release, which then turned into an article published in the Syracuse Post Standard asking the citizens for their thoughts on the housing issue. Our mailboxes, email inboxes, and voicemails were soon flooded with thoughts and ideas on the issue.

We wanted to use this approach because it would allow us to understand the perspectives of citizens on a wide scale. This served as a mental refresher, giving us several new and unheard thoughts on the issue. Plus, who knows the City of Syracuse better than the citizens themselves?

Insights We Gained from this Experiment

  1. Bad relationships between renters and landlords due to distrust & miscommunication were common.
  2. Information is hard to find.
  3. Information is hard to digest.

Our overwhelming number of responses spoke to another point- the citizens of Syracuse care about our city and want the best for it.

What did we decide on?

A civic problem is not an easy one to address. We decided on a dually-pronged approach to mitigate this issue that focussed on education & relationship building.

1. One-Stop, Multi-Audience City Housing Web Portal

This design takes an information-based approach to the issue, giving landlords, tenants, and homeowners the information & tools they need to report issues or maintain properties in-line with housing codes.

Goals of this aspect of the solution:

  1. Get citizens to make more informed decisions on properties.
  2. Get citizens to be more informed on violations in first place.
  3. Build a relationship between landlord & renters.
  4. Create a more empathetic landlord.

What this web portal needs to allow the user to do:

  1. Be able to search existing database for past and present code violations.
  2. Be able to report an existing code violation from the site.
  3. A guide on what counts as a code violation and information on why it’s important to report them.
  4. Contact information for who in City Hall to contact for help (code inspectors, the housing department, etc.).

In essence, we need to make an online guide on how to be a good renter and a good landlord.

Why just one site?

Simple- to get across the message that landlords and renters are on the same team! Also, a website would consolidate resources that are scattered across the web-

Existing web-based housing info in Syracuse
1. City (NBD, Codes, DPW)
2. CNY 211
3. Housing and Homeless Coalition
4. HHQ (GHHI)
5. Greater Tenants Network
6. CNY Legal Services
7. VLP
8. County (lead)

The information at these locations is not only scattered but also not presented in the best way. The information is presented in policy memo & legal form- hard to read and understand for a renter or landlord who is not well-versed in legal jargon.

A website would allow us to present the necessary information in a clean, concise, and sharp manner at the least (more visuals, less text; easy to navigate; consistent with existing mental models; etc). Our own custom visual design & organization could be made key.

Syracuse’s housing needs are very distinct to Syracuse. This platform, to serve its purpose, would be able to give us the high degree of personalization and a distinct set of features that are needed for the issue at hand.

Pros to the website:

  1. 24/7 access to resources.
  2. Consolidation of resources.
  3. Personalization towards Syracuse citizens.

Cons to the website:

  1. Can get difficult to maintain- most city officials are not well-versed with web technologies.
  2. Not all renters and landlords have constant access to internet.
  3. Hard to get the word out about the site in the first place.

2. The Awareness Campaign

To get people to go to the site in the first place, we needed to make people aware of the issue.

This campaign will include:

  1. Regular workshop series to train landlords.
  2. Regular renter information sessions.
  3. Fliers and posters in buildings on code violation dangers.
  4. Appointing certain members in apartment buildings as liaisons for other renters and the landlord.

Pros to the campaign:

  1. Personable- shows the city actively cares about this issue.
  2. Gives access to information to people who may not have steady internet access.
  3. Brings renters & landlords into direct contact with each other.
  4. Makes people aware of the web portal in the first place.

Cons to the campaign:

  1. Costly and time consuming for city officials.
  2. Time sensitive- not everyone may be able to attend sessions and training programs.

This is where the scope of my project ends. I was able to research and uncover the root of the rental code violation issue in Syracuse- a lack of knowledge on code issues & a poor relationship between renters and landlords.

Our initial steps in solving this issue include an awareness campaign & an informational portal.

Anna Kambhampaty

Written by

Media, tech, art, & the collisions of them all. Senior at Cornell. Previously NYTimes, CNBC, and Syracuse Office of Innovation.

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