Chapter 1. Adopt Legal Framework to Hold Properties to Clear Standards

By enacting key codes or individual ordinances, setting a legal framework, and holding properties to clear standards, municipalities can better maintain the condition of occupied properties and prevent blight.

International Property Maintenance Code or Individual Ordinances: A legal framework to hold properties to clear standards.

Municipalities need to enact codes and laws that affirmatively require owners to maintain and care for their properties. One option is to adopt the International Property Maintenance Code, a model code that spells out the minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings. (8) The Property Maintenance Code transforms the maintenance of buildings and surrounding properties from an option to a legal requirement for property owners. The collection of licenses and fines established by the IPMC pays for enforcement. The code requires property owners to maintain their vacant properties in good condition—whether they are local residents, absentee owners, or lenders temporarily in control of foreclosed properties. Municipalities can adopt the code in whole or in part, and they can modify it to suit local conditions. Another option is to adopt a set of customized local laws that address the property conditions most likely to affect health and safety.

What does it do?

The International Property Maintenance Code allows municipalities to adopt an up-to-date code that contains clear and specific requirements governing the maintenance of buildings. Municipalities can modify the code in any way they choose—adding or deleting provisions to serve their unique needs. The code presents the minimum health and safety requirements for existing buildings, structures, and property. It prohibits common blighting influences, such as the accumulation of trash, high weeds, and derelict vehicles. Property owners who violate the code are notified in writing of the reasons for a violation and are given a reasonable time period to comply. The code is updated approximately every three years. Municipalities may choose whether or not to update their codes that frequently, depending on how important they regard potential changes. The Pennsylvania Uniform Construction Code does not mandate the statewide use of the International Property Maintenance Code, so adoption is optional. Some municipalities will prefer to pass specific laws, such as prohibiting junk cars or trash on lawns, rather than adopt the entire code.

How do we pay for it?

Fines and penalties can pay for the enforcement of the code. Adopting the code usually costs very little.

What types of property are covered?

The municipality can decide what properties are covered. A property maintenance code typically establishes minimum maintenance standards for buildings that have residential, commercial, or industrial land uses. Many jurisdictions do not make all provisions of the code mandatory for historic buildings and structures that code officials judge to be safe and in the public interest of health, safety, and welfare.

What challenges will it solve?

Many Pennsylvania municipalities have no laws about property conditions and maintenance. Others have several health and safety codes that are neither clear nor comprehensive, making the code officials’ job difficult and leaving property owners confused about their responsibilities. The property maintenance code provides clear rules and steps for government to take when property owners leave their buildings or lots in an unsafe, dilapidated condition.

Where does it apply?

The code applies within any jurisdiction that voluntarily adopts it. Municipalities may prefer to adopt more specific local ordinances that set standards for property conditions.

How does it work? What is needed to use the law effectively?

To implement the code, municipalities must adopt it formally. They may modify it by including a list of exceptions to the ordinance adopting the code. Those could include a mix of more lenient and more severe provisions.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

The municipality should present a clear and persuasive case to residents and property owners as to why the code or ordinances are needed. Several Pennsylvania municipalities have faced objections to the adoption of the International Property Maintenance Code on the grounds that government does not have the right to tell property owners what they can and cannot do on their properties. Residents complain that although government has the legal right to require property owners to cut their grass, discard their trash, or remove junk cars from their yards, to do so is unfair or overstepping. The simple response is that owners have the right to maintain their properties as they choose as long as it doesn’t negatively affect their neighbors. As Cindy Daley of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania says: “Your right to extend your fist ends at the tip of my nose.” Owners of neighboring properties have the right to not have their property values brought down by vermin and blight next door.

Upon adoption of the property maintenance code, the municipality should send a list of common violations to building owners and let them know that the municipality will enforce the new code. First-time violations might provoke a warning rather than a fine as owners become familiar with the code requirements.

As with other code enforcement tools, the adoption of a maintenance code is a good time to ensure that the municipality has a database that can support the systematic monitoring of complaints, violations, and properties. The database should be searchable by type of property, number of complaints and violations, type of violation, neighborhoods, length of time in the system, compliance status, number of inspector contacts, owner and agent, and other variables. Where possible, the database should interface with databases used by the tax assessor, tax claim bureau, and others that have critical information about property ownership, tax arrears, and sales activity that may support enforcement efforts. An ability to interface with the police database may help support collaborative problem-solving for properties that have chronic code violations and repeated criminal incidents.

What legal documents will we need?

Jurisdictions wishing to adopt the 2012 International Property Maintenance Code as an enforceable regulation governing existing structures and premises should ensure that certain factual information is included in the adopting legislation. Sample legislation for adoption of the International Property Maintenance Code is available at https://law.resource.org/pub/us/code/ibr/icc.ipmc.2012.html.

Who is using the tool now?

The Borough of Etna in Allegheny County has adopted the International Property Maintenance Code in its entirety and without modification. Etna has found the code to be an essential tool in the borough’s blight fight because it gives the borough the regulatory authority to cite owners who fail to cut their grass, leave trash in their yards, or fail to repair holes in their sidewalks. Etna found that once owners failed to take basic steps to care for their properties, blight became contagious and nearby owners similarly failed to keep up their properties. Enforcing the code standards makes clear to all that buildings in Etna must be properly maintained.

Immediately after adoption, Etna took steps to enforce the code strictly, sending certified letters to owners and routinely taking violators to common pleas court. The process often left residents angry and defensive. Many waited to fix their properties until the day before a court hearing, causing magistrates to feel that their time was wasted. Now Etna employs a friendlier approach, using doorknob hanger signs that explain the need to remedy violations, and phone calls where needed to gain compliance. Staffing has been a challenge because Etna outsources its enforcement of building codes and property maintenance codes and needs someone with knowledge of the community who isn’t fazed by the challenge of citing relatives, friends, and friends of friends when necessary. Etna makes the investment in enforcement because when private owners stop caring and maintaining their properties, property values and taxes go down, along with quality of life.

How can we combine this with other strategies?

A property maintenance code is a prerequisite to many of the tools described in this manual.

Quality-of-Life-Violation Ticketing Ordinance: Tickets and fines for code violations that are visible on the exteriors of private properties

Municipalities that have property maintenance codes may issue tickets and fines for immediate payment—similar to a parking ticket—when code violations are visible on the exterior of a private property. Typical quality-of-life ticket violations include trash and litter on the property, abandoned vehicles or appliances, or high grass and weeds. When inspectors target a single area for the proactive inspection of properties and issue tickets, it is called a sweep.  In fact, Allentown issues tickets under its Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Program, or SWEEP for short.  

What does it do?

The goal of quality-of-life ticketing is to eliminate unsightly conditions on the exteriors of properties—such as high weeds and grass, trash, and abandoned vehicles, appliances, or furniture—that blight a neighborhood.(9) Inspectors are cross-trained to handle any type of eyesore complaint as they “sweep” blocks, commercial corridors, or neighborhoods, and give tickets to owners who have property maintenance code violations. When code inspectors find a private property violation, they issue a violation notice to the property owner, along with a deadline for corrective action. Rather than citations that are enforceable by the courts and require a hearing, the violations are treated like parking tickets: Fines and actions to correct the violations are due immediately. Code officials or police officers typically issue a ticket with a $25 fine for a first offense. The severity of the fine rises with subsequent offenses—for example, $50, $100, $300. Violators have a week to 10 days to pay. Quality-of-life tickets have a very high response rate. When the owner refuses to fix the condition or pay the fine, however, a citation is issued and the matter lands in court.

How do we pay for it?

The tool has brought in thousands of dollars to government coffers in communities that have adopted it. Fines imposed for quality-of-life tickets can be used to fund inspectors on the street. There is no legal limit on the amount of fines collected. That differs from restrictions on licensing fees, which must be limited to covering costs.

What types of property are covered?

Quality-of-life ticketing can be used for offenses on all types of property.

What challenges will it solve?

A quality-of-life ticketing ordinance is designed to streamline the process of punishing violators of nuisance ordinances, freeing up both the magisterial court system and municipal code officials—along with ensuring that revenue from fines goes to local government. The ordinance also makes the process quicker and less expensive for owners. Litter, dumping, and graffiti are costly problems that contribute to the deterioration of property values and general disorder in a community. Litter and littered properties degrade the physical appearance of a community, reducing business and tax revenue and inhibiting economic development. In addition, sweeps can identify small code violations while they are still small and can be corrected at low cost.

Where does it apply?

Any Pennsylvania municipality may adopt a quality-of-life ticketing ordinance.

How does it work? What is needed to use the law effectively?

Typically, a property owner receives a warning. If the owner fails to remediate the violation in a short, declared amount of time, the code enforcement official or a police officer issues a code violation ticket. The owner pays a small fine, such as $25. Fines continue to accumulate if the owner fails to remedy the violation. Announcing sweeps, publicizing the most common violations, and educating the public about how such violations harm the community are practices that encourage owners to remedy problems quickly. Ticketing ordinances allow owners to appeal the tickets. Owners who appeal are often required to pay the fine with the appeal submission and to seek reimbursement. When owners fail to respond to escalating fines, the municipality must bring them to court to resolve the violations.

What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?

Sweeps are only as effective as the follow-up enforcement and remediation. The goal is to encourage action by issuing repeated notices to owners as fines increase and accumulate. Inspections should be ongoing and should be followed up by re-inspections to determine whether the violations have been cleared.

What legal documents will we need?

  • Ordinance allowing for quality-of-life ticketing
  • The tickets themselves
  • Appeals forms for owners who seek to appeal the tickets

Who is using the tool now?

Allentown's Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) began in 2005 and was the first program of its type in Pennsylvania. In Allentown, each day that a violation continues constitutes a separate offense for which a separate fine may be imposed. Employees designated as SWEEP officers, along with police, animal control, and members of the health bureau, issue tickets for a variety of violations, such as the failure to remove snow or ice from city sidewalks in a timely manner, excessive noise, and illegal dumping.

Allentown has found SWEEP to be a cost-effective program that limits the amount of time that officers spend in court hearings. In 2011, Allentown issued more than 5,800 SWEEP tickets for more than 9,000 violations. Fines were $25 to $100, and 60% of tickets were paid. The fines benefit the city's solid-waste fund. Offenders can appeal SWEEP tickets and request a court hearing. The inspections are ongoing and are followed up by re-inspections to determine whether a violation has been cleared. If not, the case is set for a hearing to determine possible fines and an order for remedial action. Any cost of remediation that the municipality incurred is the violator's responsibility. If a fine is not paid within 10 days, a citation is issued and the city requests a court hearing.

In 2012, Coal Township in Northumberland County began a ticketing system modeled on the Allentown SWEEP program. Tickets carry an initial $25 fine for violating nuisance codes about trash, high grass, junk vehicles, and more. The fines can reach $300 for subsequent violations, and individual tickets can be levied daily until the nuisance is abated. Township commissioner Gene Welsh was recently quoted as saying that the ticketing program has had a positive impact on the general cleanliness of township properties.(10) Although the goal is to allow for enforcement without going to court, the township had one case in which owners refused to fix their dilapidated properties. The township pursued court action, and the magisterial district judge found the owners guilty of 26 code violations for 9 properties and fined them a total of $4,331.(11)

How can we combine this with other strategies?

Tickets issued must meet violation definitions in the property maintenance code or relevant municipal ordinances. As a result, the Housing Alliance recommends adopting the International Property Maintenance Code before passing a ticketing ordinance or beginning SWEEPS. A ticketing ordinance may also work effectively in combination with a conservatorship program. Where an owner refuses to remediate conditions after receiving repeated tickets, and the property has some value, it may make sense to allow a conservator to petition the court of common pleas to borrow against the property to fund repairs and to be reimbursed from the sale of the property.


8. 2012 International Property Maintenance Code, published by the International Code Council.

9. The exterior inspection, however, may trigger an interior inspection if a structural issue is visible from the outside.

10. Eric Scicchitano, “Proactive Approach to Blight Paying Off in Coal Township,” NewsItem.com, August 30, 2012. http://newsitem.com/news/proactive-approach-to-blight-paying-off-in-coal-township-1.1365791.

11. Id.