For years, the only way Baltimore code enforcers could prod property owners to fix problems - if asking didn't work - was taking them to court.
Now the city can slap them with a fine. And it intends to.
"We're going to be increasingly relying on citations for enforcement," said Michael Braverman, the city's deputy commissioner for permits and code enforcement. "We want the message to get out: Respond to the violation notice. Don't think about waiting for a summons to appear in District Court. ... This will allow us to get timely outcomes in a way we have never been able to do to date."
A law change that went into effect in June allows $250 to $500 fines for a number of housing-code violations, from deteriorating porches to the boarded-up homes that bedevil neighborhoods. Braverman expects that citations for such violations will start going out in three to six months.
Property owners will still get a warning first. Fines come if the problem isn't fixed by the deadline, which could be 30 days in some instances or as little as 24 hours for pressing problems like no running water in a rented building.
The city already had the authority to issue citations for sanitation problems - think trash - but it's been slowly adding to its arsenal. Separate pieces of legislation passed in the last few years allow the city to issue immediate fines - without warning - for failure to register a rental property, running a multifamily dwelling without a license and doing unpermitted construction work.
The newest change steps it up a notch, to property owners ordered to fix a problem more complex than a lack of a license or permit.
"Our goal is to change ... the culture of impunity," Braverman said. "Most people are going to want to resolve the issue, and we want to stay in touch with them about the way they want to do that. The enforcement is only for those who need to know that there will be enforcement in order for them to do what they need to do."
Mike Mitchell, chief executive of Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake, which does affordable-housing work in the region, is excited about the change. His experience with the old method of taking property owners to court is that judges give violators six months to fix the problems. And sometimes six months on top of that, if the case comes back because work still hasn't started.
"This system of stalling ends up hurting the neighborhoods," Mitchell said. He thinks fines "get a quicker reaction from those that are not following the law."