City Council eyes code enforcement capacity

Ben Crosby is the current Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Keizer (Submitted).

Like most of Keizer’s city employees, Ben Crosby wears multiple hats.

As a resource for both the development department and the Keizer Police Department, Crosby’s duties range from writing parking citations to finding resources for homeless people or trying to connect people found squatting in a derelict home to addiction services. Some days, he’s responding to all of it in a single shift.

“Abandoned vehicles are by far the most frequent complaint we receive, but they take some of the least time. In the past five years, I’ve helped the police department build cases on 14 problem properties and those are a huge part of my time,” Crosby said.

There are also the calls where percolating disputes between neighbors, sometimes decades-long, finally boil over in the form of an intrusive berry bush.

“Ben is great with those types of issues,” said Shane Witham, Keizer’s interim development director and Crosby’s supervisor. “He gains people’s trust, even friendship sometimes, and bends over backward while still acting as a mediator.”

At any given time, Crosby can be working 50 to 100 open cases. It means that some issues get put on the back burner. Still, he tries to get eyes on every issue within 24-48 hours.

“A lot of people think of code enforcement as punitive, but we always start from the standpoint of trying to educate,” Crosby said. “Code enforcement is designed to uphold and reinforce community and neighborhood expectations, which is also different from something like a homeowner’s association.”

Crosby was a code enforcement officer with the City of Salem before joining Keizer and the caseload in the city’s neighbor to the south is divided among many more employees.

“On any business day, we have 10 code officers working on some aspect of enforcement,” said Brady Rogers, administrator of the Salem neighborhood enhancement division.

In Salem, vehicle complaints and issues are the full-time job of two people. Other officers respond to livability issues such as trash complaints and neighbor disputes. It’s the sole job of two others to keep track of the city’s Multifamily Housing Safety Program. With 40% of Salem’s residents living in 22,000 multifamily housing, each one gets inspected about once every five years. The city issues multifamily housing licenses to help fund the program.

“When we have a problem space, either because of owners or tenants, officers can visit them more frequently until the issues are corrected,” Rogers said. Places with high turnovers—shelters, motels and hotels are inspected yearly. “It’s a program that really benefits both parties. If owners aren’t keeping their properties safe, they have a place to turn. If owners end up with a bad tenant, they can also rely on clean inspection certificates to make their cases.”

Code enforcement officers are also regular fixtures at neighborhood association meetings in Salem, at least they were when meeting in-person wasn’t so fraught.

Keizer does not have a comparable program and it does not license owners of multifamily dwellings. While there are not as many multifamily units in Keizer, it comprises about 27% of all dwelling types.

Witham and Crosby can envision a Keizer multifamily housing safety program, but it would take an additional code enforcement officer.

Since Mayor Cathy Clark suggested making city staffing – both succession and capacity – a priority as part of the council’s goals, code enforcement needs have kept rearing their heads in public meetings.

An additional enforcement officer would lighten Crosby’s load, but it would also create the breathing room to start up new code-related efforts.

“These are probably the most proactive code enforcement gets,” Crosby said. “It can feel like someone is always watching you, but it keeps everybody on the same page. It sets a standard for the city that says we expect a certain level of livability and here’s how we get there.”

Creating such a program would require a host of policy changes be approved by the Keizer Planning Commission and city council. It would likely require a more granular look at what qualifies as safe housing that currently exists in Keizer’s development code, and then committing a certain amount of code officers’ time toward enforcing it.

Witham thinks an owner’s license for multifamily dwellings combined with resources from the city’s environmental department and public works department could cover the costs of adding a part-time or, possibly, full-time code enforcement officer.

“I think we can get there, but we also want to be able to show that the community is getting better service as a result of the investment,” Witham said. He added that the city would try to bring in community members and stakeholders to discuss the specifics of any Keizer housing safety program.

While any expansion of the code enforcement in Keizer remains distant for the time being, Witham suggested a multifamily housing safety program would align with the city council’s recent commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“If the vast majority of our black, indigenous and people of color are living in multifamily units, we need to make sure the housing being provided is adequate, safe, accessible, and appropriate,” Witham said.