Property Upkeep Code to Protect Neighborhood Quality

by Bertha
(Hall Co Ga)

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: We live in a neighborhood of single family homes. Because we are in the county and not the city, the International Property Maintenance Code cannot be enforced. We have four families living in a single-family residence. We have a car and boat repair shop being run out of a single-family house and all the junk that entails in their yard. What can we do to get our county to enact the international property maintenance code and/or some type of property upkeep law? Please help us.

Editors Reply: We understand your concerns. Areas that are partly urban, partly rural, and partly suburban often display behaviors similar to what you are experiencing, to the irritation of others who have more suburban ideas of how their neighborhood should look.

On this website we have articles on various kinds of codes, including a property maintenance code and an existing building code. As you note, some of your concerns could be addressed by the international property maintenance code.

If you want this, you will need to organize yourself with neighbors and possibly people in other parts of the county who have similar concerns. Then you will want to approach your county officials and try to get them interested in adopting the code. Assure them that in the adopting ordinance, they can make exceptions to the code or alter it in any way they choose. The amendments or exceptions to the code book can be one sentence or pages long.

Incidentally, it is perfectly appropriate for your county to write its own property maintenance code. The only reason for using the international codes is to take advantage of the collective judgment of experts in the field, but if there is resistance to anything from the outside, occasionally a county or town starts with their own very short property maintenance code that addresses specific concerns. You might try this approach if county officials feel the standard code is too long and cumbersome. If you take this locally written code route, make sure there is a strong enforcement provision.

Also the go-it-alone approach should be discussed in detail with the county's attorney. One reason for the popularity of the standard codes is that they tend to pass legal muster better.

If you experience no openness to code adoption at all, either from elected officials or from neighbors and strangers from other parts of the county, then you are left with seeking other options.

We are assuming that your county unincorporated area is not covered by a zoning ordinance either. That could be a wrong assumption, so let's consider for a moment that the usual way to handle both over-occupancy of a house and outdoor storage is through the zoning ordinance. If you don't know, verify whether or not your area is covered under zoning. If it is, investigate which zoning district your property is in and read all the regulations pertaining to that zoning district.

If indeed there is no applicable code and no zoning ordinance, as we suspect, you will need to tackle the problems one by one. For the situation of four families living in one home, contact your county health department if you have one. They might have a health-related ordinance or even state law authority to deal with too many people living in one home. If the house is large, this may not work, but don't overlook the potential for health department enforcement.

For the outdoor storage situation, that is much trickier, as probably it is acceptable to some in the community because that's the way rural folks conduct their business. Remember to talk directly with the business owner; of course this will be more effective when several neighbors go together for a face to face conversation. (Yes, I know that is difficult, but it's the correct first step.)

If none of these approaches work, then you may want to take advantage of social media or traditional media to make your point and apply social pressure. Businesses often are responsive to negative publicity. Television and Facebook may work wonders.

Be careful with the media approach to the four families in a single-family house though. If these four families do not include the owner of the house, then you need to really apply some social pressure on the owner, and you can definitely take bad landlords to the media.

If the over-occupied house includes the owner of the home, you and some other neighbors should meet with that owner. Bring your plate of homemade cookies and try to find out what the problem is. Perhaps that owner is facing financial difficulties and is collecting rent from the other households, perhaps these other households are struggling or shiftless relatives, or perhaps these are immigrants trying to get a grip on a new life. Learn the circumstances and see if you can figure out some referrals to agencies and groups that could help.

If the owner-occupant is just stubborn, then you have to figure out whether to go public and if so, what kind of social stigma might move that person to action.

In any and all of these events, your area might be ripe for forming a neighborhood association. We have a page specifically about the neighborhood association start-up process and even an ebook about it. An association typically has more power and influence than an individual or even a small ad hoc group.

Good luck with this community development problem, which unfortunately is not all that rare.

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