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Building Codes: The Basics

Building codes and housing inspection policies are the primary means by which local governments set standards to regulate the construction and rehabilitation of housing, to ensure the safety of residential buildings and to protect the health of occupants of housing units.  These regulations are generally adopted and enforced by a local agency, such as a code enforcement office.

Building inspectors are responsible for ensuring regulatory compliance and building safety and in this role can have a great deal of discretion in the interpretation and application of building codes. Proper training of inspectors and adoption of a cooperative approach to code enforcement helps to create an environment that facilitates and encourages the safety of new and rehabilitated housing. Rather than enforcing codes in a narrow and rigid manner, building inspectors in some communities assume a more facilitative attitude towards code enforcement. Taking the approach of an “educator” instead of a “police officer,” inspectors work with building owners and developers to make projects feasible rather than penalizing them for noncompliance. Proper training and knowledge of code details help staff to more confidently make reasonable allowances, while still assuring the overall safety of the project.

Building and Property Maintenance Codes

Building and property maintenance codes provide standardized construction and repair practices to ensure structures are physically safe and structurally sound and that the health and safety of occupants are protected.  Housing code enforcement policies exist in most communities across the country and the regulations are included as part of the city or county ordinance.

Enforcing building and property maintenance codes is typically the responsibility of the local/municipal government, though the particular local agency that leads code enforcement activities can vary.  Local code enforcement policies generally follow building and property maintenance codes developed by the International Code Council (ICC).  The ICC is the primary organization responsible for developing the various building code standards.  The ICC’s set of international codes includes the International Building Code (IBC), the International Residential Code (IRC), and the International Existing Building Code (IEBC). States and local jurisdictions can use these building codes, as well as zoning regulations, to set important standards for housing quality, disaster resilience and energy efficiency.

Building codes include regulations related to light, ventilation, occupancy, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and fire safety systems, and are generally applied to new construction or substantial rehabilitation projects.  Property maintenance codes (also sometimes called sanitation codes or simply housing codes) outline the minimum standards that need to be met by new or existing housing to protect the health and safety of residents.

Housing codes also can include regulations related to the presence and locations of motor vehicles, property registration and the use and maintenance of city- or county-owned land.  The housing code also establishes the standards and requirements for vacant units or units that are unoccupied and unsafe for human habitation.

Housing Quality Standards

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has additional standards that apply to housing units that participate in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program.  The Housing Quality Standards (HQS) regulations set forth basic standards that all units must meet before assistance can be paid to the landlord on behalf of a family. Inspections of these units occur at least annually for as long as the landlord participates in the voucher program.  A local government agency—usually the local housing authority—has responsibility for inspecting units and reporting to HUD, and the inspections can be conducted by Public Housing Authority (PHA) staff or contractors.

There are three types of HQS inspections.  An initial inspection occurs when a voucher holder finds a unit to rent.  Annual inspections of units in the HCV program occur once a year.  Special inspections are undertaken if a specific complaint is made by the tenant, landlord or a member of the public.

The HQS establishes minimum “standard housing” criteria for the health and safety of families in the HCV program.  According to HUD, the current HQS regulations consist of 13 key elements of housing quality, performance requirements and acceptability criteria to meet each performance requirement. These HQS apply to all housing types, including single-family housing units and units in multifamily buildings.  There are additional specific standards developed for special housing types such as manufactured homes, congregate housing, single room occupancy, shared housing and group residences.

Key Resources

The Value and Impact of Building Codes. 2013. By Ellen Vaughan and Jim Turner. Washington, DC: Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

Housing Code Enforcement. 2014. Washington, DC: National Municipal Policy Network, National League of Cities.

Healthy Homes. Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures.

International Code Council website.

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