Fewer homeowners and tenants are keeping up homes

by David R
(Spokane, WA)

Visitor Question: I live in Spokane, WA. I am new here and find this city has a lot of people who are neglecting their landscapes and houses in once very nice middle-class neighborhoods. Weeds, litter and tall grass abound. My question stems from the fact that Spokane has very few ordinances dealing with such matters. What have cities with a similar problem done to enhance their ordinances to solve these problems?


Editors Reply: First we would like to note that Spokane is not the only place where formerly nice middle-class neighborhoods are seeing a lack of maintenance. It is a fairly common occurrence that we will address later in this answer, after we deal with your primary question.

Many cities, and in fact most cities, actually have a height limit on weeds and grass. Often this is 8 inches and sometimes as much as 12 inches. Sometimes this limitation is enacted as a freestanding ordinance, meaning it is not part of the zoning ordinance or a property maintenance code.

I would be surprised to learn that Spokane has nothing of the sort, but certainly it is possible. Sometimes cities have suffered having their weed ordinances, as they are sometimes called, struck down by courts as being unconstitutionally vague. In a few instances the city has not then followed through and tried a new weed ordinance more likely to pass judicial muster.

So your first approach would be to make completely sure that Spokane has no existing ordinance covering your concern about the landscape. It sounds as though you have done this.

If you find there is no ordinance, you could take one of two approaches. If you are so inclined, you could research ordinances of other cities and towns in Washington state to find their weed ordinances or grass height limitations. A majority of cities now have their ordinances online, so this isn't the major task it once would have been. Just use a search engine. Then when you have at least three examples, you can discuss those examples with your city council person and let him or her take it from there.

Another general approach if you don't feel comfortable doing this research is to organize with some neighbors who also are concerned about this. Then several of you should attend the city council meeting, if they allow open comments from the public. You can then present your concerns in a calm and civil manner, but be sure to point out the degree to which poor upkeep is suppressing property values in your neighborhood by making it less desirable to newcomers such as yourself.

If the city council does not take miscellaneous comments from the public at its meetings, try to set up a private face-to-face meeting with your council person. If he or she declines, perhaps the mayor would be more receptive. Present your concerns in a factual and civil way, but let it be known that you don't intend to take no for an answer.

Perhaps you will find that city officials object on the grounds that these ordinances are difficult to enforce or that they cannot afford enough enforcement personnel. In the case of the first objection, you can point out that just the threat of enforcement is enough to get people out to cut the grass and weeds. Even occasional enforcement can cause greater compliance with the ordinance.

If the city feels they cannot afford enough employees to enforce existing or proposed ordinances, that is indeed short-sighted. In the long run that will make Spokane an undesirable place to live, cause their tax base to shrink, and even lead to the perception that residents can afford to flaunt all kinds of ordinances.

Up until now, we have ignored your inclusion of littering in our discussion of ordinances. We are not aware of any cities that currently have good ordinances about garden variety littering such as throwing a potato chip bag on the ground or dropping a plastic bag and not picking it up. Anti-littering campaigns are all about educating the public, especially children through young adults, about the negative impacts of litter on the perception of neighborhood quality. It is difficult to motivate them on the grounds of property values, but sometimes environmental appeals will be more fruitful.

Note that many municipalities and even counties have ordinances against large-scale dumping on vacant lots, on stream banks, and so forth. If that is a part of your concern, again you can research dumping ordinances and find plenty of examples to present to elected officials and city staff members.

Another minor point about litter is that in some cases, poor quality trash collection is part of the problem. Just this week I followed the solid waste collection truck down my street and noticed that at least two items of debris fell or blew out of trash receptacles and the truck personnel did not stop to pick those up. One of the plastic bags ended up impaled on my asters in the front yard. If you observe this, you can ask the city to clamp down on the solid waste employees or contractors to make sure that they pick up anything they notice that was dropped or blown away.

As for maintenance of buildings, certainly a city the size of Spokane should have a property maintenance code or housing code. Investigate which of the standard codes it has adopted, determine how code enforcement works in your community, and request and demand that enforcement be stepped up.

If necessary, the city and its nonprofit sector may need to look at financial assistance for property owners who are unable to afford simple maintenance tasks. Sometimes corporations and other volunteers will sponsor a day in which they paint or perform other relatively simple maintenance tasks for elderly or financially needy home owners. This is especially likely to be a successful feel-good project in neighborhoods where there are plenty of long-time homeowners who are now elderly and living on fixed incomes.

Since you mention tenants in your title, another component of the issue may be that formerly middle-class neighborhoods tend to attract absentee landlords who can create a situation of too many tenants compared to homeowners. The city and the mortgage originators there should tackle this problem too, if it exists in your community.

In short, check out the code enforcement section of this website and become acquainted with typical codes and enforcement actions. Organize with your neighbors, including starting a neighborhood association if need be. You can learn plenty about that approach through looking at our community organizations section.

Sometimes there is a lack of enforcement and even a lack of caring about declining middle-class neighborhoods due to ignorance or racial prejudice. You could help remedy ignorance by planning a walk for elected officials when spring comes, but racial bias is harder to overcome. Still it is the job of elected officials to serve all of the people and all of the city, so insist that they get out to see real conditions in the parts of the city that you feel deserve more home owner attention.

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