More than 25 US cities and counties have proactive rental inspection programs

Proactive Rental Inspections for Healthy Homes

“PRI program administrators should strive to have a good working relationship with all relevant stakeholders, including both property owners and tenants.”
Gregory Miao
senior attorney, ChangeLab Solutions

Story at a Glance

  • Proactive rental inspection (PRI) programs differ from traditional rental housing code enforcement by relying on periodic inspections rather than tenant complaints.
  • Cities across the country — Boston, Seattle, Syracuse, and Tulsa, among others — have implemented PRI programs to protect tenant health and improve relationships between landlords and housing officials.
  • ChangeLab Solutions can provide tailored technical assistance to help your city or locality enact or improve its PRI program.

Home Is Where the Health Is

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to disrupt our lives and routines now 18 months after it began, many Americans are still spending more time at home than ever before.

While stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures are designed to keep residents safe, for the tens of millions of Americans who live in substandard housing units that pose an immediate threat to their health, spending more time at home may increase their likelihood of experiencing poor health.

The pandemic’s severe effect on renters is well documented. As of July 2021, more than 1 in 7 renters were still not caught up on rental payments they missed during the pandemic. Compared with white renters, renters of color are disproportionately likely to be behind on rent.

Because of the direct link between where people live and their health, it is crucial that local governments ensure that rental units are not harming renters.

When renters face unsafe housing conditions, they typically have few ways to compel landlords to address potential health hazards like lead paint dust, corroded lead water pipes, mold, pests, and exposed asbestos fibers. Many US cities still have complaint-based rental inspection programs — an approach that discourages low-income or undocumented renters from exercising their rights and that could lead to strained relationships between tenants and landlords.

Because of the direct link between where people live and their health, it is crucial that local governments ensure that rental units are not harming renters.

How, then, can cities implement a rental inspection system that will protect families and residents at the greatest risk for in-home health hazards and eviction? One solution lies in replacing traditional complaint-based rental inspection systems with periodic proactive inspections.

Inspection Innovations Across the Nation

An example of a proactive rental inspection guide from Syracuse NY
An example of a proactive rental inspection guide from the City of Syracuse, NY. Click to open in a new window.

Over the last decade, many US cities have turned to proactive rental inspection (PRI) programs to improve housing conditions and preserve affordable housing units in their jurisdiction. Local conditions and regulations mean that no two PRI programs are exactly alike. Instead, localities must adjust the PRI approach to fit the needs of their own communities.

“Every city’s PRI program has its own unique origin story,” says Gregory Miao, a senior attorney at ChangeLab Solutions who works on expanding access to safe, affordable housing, “but most PRI programs share some similar features and compliance incentives.”

To facilitate effective intervention, PRI programs require accurate data on what rental units exist within their jurisdiction. Generally, cities collect this information through a mandatory registration or licensing program for rental property owners. The city of Syracuse, New York, provides a great example of a code enforcement program that has collected extensive information about the housing stock in its jurisdiction. Syracuse housing officials have access to demographic data relating to code violation types and locations, which allow them to tailor their code enforcement efforts with greater accuracy.

In cities where state law prevents local governments from enacting a mandatory rental registry, housing officials can consider creating a voluntary certification program for landlords. For example, due to state laws prohibiting rental registries, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a voluntary "Gold Star” certification program that automatically connects property owners with other health-promoting property certification programs.

Many US cities still have complaint-based rental inspection programs — an approach that discourages low-income or undocumented renters from exercising their rights.

Equipped with an accurate understanding of rental housing conditions in their city, PRI programs can then establish a mechanism for periodically inspecting those units. In some cities, like Boston, units are inspected at regular intervals — for instance, once every five years. In other cities, like Seattle, periodic inspections are supplemented by conditional inspections; for example, when an individual landlord exhibits a pattern of safety violations, it triggers additional inspections of other rental units they own.

Lastly, PRI programs must also include an incentive for landlord compliance with housing safety standards. Compliance mechanisms might range from warnings to fines and rental license suspension, depending on the number and severity of the violations.

An example of a well-designed compliance system comes from the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids’ PRI program rewards compliant landlords with lower fees and less frequent inspections while requiring heftier fees and more frequent inspections for property owners with a pattern of significant housing code violations.  

When designing compliance incentives for PRI programs, policymakers should carefully consider how enforcement actions might inequitably affect underserved groups or communities and how unintended consequences might arise. And PRI programs should provide landlords with options for appealing or contesting any citations or fines that they incur.

“The purpose of PRI programs is not to punish landlords but to encourage compliance with local housing codes and promote the health of renters,” says Miao. “PRI program administrators should strive to have a good working relationship with all relevant stakeholders, including both property owners and tenants.”

Potential Hurdles for New PRI Programs

Because housing policies vary widely across US states and cities, local housing officials and advocates who want to set up a new PRI program will have to carefully analyze the scope of their powers and abilities. PRI programs are works in progress that will need to evolve over time to meet community needs and priorities.

One possible hurdle for new PRI programs is generating community buy-in, especially among potential skeptics like mom-and-pop landlords or tenants who are uncomfortable with the PRI process. Different types of targeted, inclusive community engagement efforts can help PRI programs get community buy-in.

Boston’s PRI program addresses this challenge by convening regular workshops to help landlords learn about the code enforcement process and rules; this approach could also work in other localities. Relatedly, Cleveland’s PRI program builds community buy-in by training and hiring housing inspectors from within the local community, to help generate trust among residents of underserved neighborhoods.

“The purpose of PRI programs is not to punish landlords but to encourage compliance with local housing codes and promote the health of renters."

Another potential challenge for PRI programs is ensuring that equity considerations inform the program’s enforcement actions and policies. Fines and penalties that are not adequately adjusted for the severity or impact of a violation needlessly risk displacing tenants, removing rental units from the market, or forcing foreclosure on property owners.

For landlords with a history of noncompliance with housing codes, housing inspectors could consider implementing a cooperative compliance approach that nudges landlords to bring their properties up to code instead of burdening them with heavy fines and penalties.

Getting Started with Your Own PRI Program

ChangeLab Solutions has identified five fundamental drivers of health inequity: (1) structural discrimination, (2) income inequality and poverty, (3) disparities in opportunity, (4) disparities in political power, and (5) governance that limits meaningful participation. While most laws and policies intersect with all five of these drivers of inequity in one way or another, laws and policies aimed at confronting one specific driver of inequity are often more effective at reducing disparities in population health outcomes.

PRI programs are, essentially, a policy intervention designed to confront the fifth fundamental driver of health inequity: governance that limits meaningful participation. Complaint-based code enforcement policies can discourage renters from exercising their right to safe housing. Complaint-based inspections can also create strained relationships between renters, landlords, housing advocates, and city officials, eroding stakeholders’ belief that governance can be impartial and responsive to their needs. At their core, PRI programs should be designed to promote trust, fairness, and transparency so that all community members can meaningfully participate in the rental housing code enforcement system.

ChangeLab Solutions can help your city or locality improve an existing PRI program or get started on creating a PRI program from the ground up. Our housing policy experts can provide technical assistance on program design and implementation; they can also advise PRI program leaders on best practices for protecting tenants who are at the greatest risk for poor health.

When combined with other equity-informed housing policies designed to protect renters’ health and preserve housing stock, PRI programs can help solve the housing challenges faced by many US cities.

Please contact us to learn more about how ChangeLab Solutions can support your PRI program. Stay tuned for the release of our new PRI guide in early 2022, and check out our current resources on promoting safe, stable, affordable housing.

By Patrick Glass

10/4/2021