In late 2016, municipalities gained a sharpened arrow in their quill of blight fighting tools. The Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act was amended, effective January 2, 2017, to allow municipalities to evaluate buildings (residential, commercial and industrial) at the time of sale or transfer for substantial violations of habitability and safety standards. Where substantial violations exist, the municipality may withhold a use and occupancy certificate, pending correction of the issues. The transfer of ownership is allowed to proceed, but the new owner is obligated to promptly remediate the dangerous condition or face significant fines.
The new amendments shorten the compliance time for new owners of blighted properties from eighteen (18) months to twelve (12) months. The amendments clarify that the municipality can utilize the tool to enforce any number of ordinances relating to health, welfare and safety, including building, housing property maintenance or fire codes. Although foreclosing mortgage companies and financial institutions are exempt from applicability for lower level violations, these entities are obligated to correct substantial violations.
Here are two (2) hypothetical uses of the Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act:
• A residential building has a hole in the roof and the back steps have crumbled leaving no safe rear access to the building. The code official for the municipality has cited the owner for violations of the building, property maintenance and fire code. While the citations are pending but not resolved by the Magisterial District Judge, the municipality gets a call from a closing company looking to verify that there are no liens on the property. This is the decision point under the Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act for the municipality to act. If recognized, the municipality could identify the new owner, inspect the property and document the existing violations, substantial and otherwise. The municipality would issue a temporary access certificate or a temporary use and occupancy certificate. The owner would be responsible for remediation within twelve (12) months, unless otherwise extended by agreement with the municipality.
• A municipality reviews the Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act and develops a health and safety inspection program at the time of sale for all buildings. The program is adopted by Ordinance, as well as Use and Occupancy Applications and a fee schedule. Local real estate agents are educated through direct mailings and good website information support. The Ordinance requires that prior to closing, all buildings are inspected. Where violations or substantial violations are identified, consistent with the municipality’s ordinance, appropriate action is taken and tracked by the Code Official. The process is streamlined and, after some fine-tuning, operates on a continuing basis to obtain voluntary compliance from owners to fix and maintain their properties.
The law’s potential usefulness is amplified by an efficient code enforcement program and effective communication within the municipal organization. Deliberate blight reduction strategies, in isolation or on an institutional scale, help to preserve and support our communities, and the Municipal Code and Ordinance Compliance Act, with a little effort and training, helps us to continue to move these efforts forward.