City of Syracuse- Housing Code Violations

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

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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:

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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:

To Landlords:

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:

Interviews with landlords revealed:

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:

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.”

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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

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:

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

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:

Cons to the website:

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:

Pros to the campaign:

Cons to the campaign:

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.

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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