A Call to Action: Addressing Housing Instability and Quality

A 12-week learning opportunity exploring how your city can use proactive rental inspection programs to increase housing quality and stability for residents

What Works Cities
7 min readFeb 25, 2020


UPDATE: This learning opportunity has reopened for registration as of April 30th. The new launch date is June 4th. Housing stability and housing quality remain critically important during this crisis and this learning opportunity will support cities in addressing long-term housing instability and quality concerns. While this Sprint is not directly aimed at addressing the most urgent policy and programmatic responses related to COVID-19 and housing, it will address the impacts COVID-19 is having on existing housing stability and quality strategies and how cities can adapt these approaches to work in today’s current context.

Start Date: June 4
Registration Deadline: Thursday, May 28
Duration: 12 Weeks
Informational Webinar: Watch the recording here
Complete the registration form here

In this 12-week Sprint led by the City of Syracuse Innovation Team and ChangeLab Solutions, cities will learn how to develop partnerships, build community relationships, and use relevant data to design and implement inspection programs that have been shown to improve cities’ ability to identify health- and safety-related housing code violations and increase compliance, all in service of bettering housing quality and preventing unnecessary evictions.

Complete a registration form by May 28th to join us for this exciting digital learning opportunity!

The Issue

Image courtesy of the City of Syracuse Innovation Team.

Today in the U.S., approximately 35 million households in metropolitan areas live in homes with at least one health or safety hazard. These hazards include housing problems such as water leaks that breed mold, damaged interior walls, and pest infestations. Low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately more likely to live in substandard housing that does not meet federal housing quality standards and adversely affects their health or safety, but are less likely to report housing condition problems for fear of eviction or landlord retaliation.

Living in substandard housing can have dire consequences on one’s health and life outcomes. For example, high levels of lead exposure from old pipes and paint have been shown to adversely affect children’s brain and nervous system development, and damp and moldy housing can increase the likelihood of developing various types of chronic conditions like asthma. When poor housing is geographically concentrated, social and economic opportunities in a neighborhood suffer as well.

The vast majority of those living in substandard housing are tenants who rely on landlords to properly maintain basic living conditions and perform the necessary upgrades and fixes to their buildings. Cities, however, set the standard for quality housing and can enact policies and build partnerships that proactively address housing instability issues and protect residents’ health and safety.

Additionally, as housing pressures continue to rise in cities across the country and more low-income households struggle to find affordable homes, the preservation and protection of existing housing is becoming more critical than ever to stem unnecessary evictions, prevent displacement, and increase housing stability.

With their residents facing these substantial challenges, how might cities ensure that their residents and families have access to safe, stable, and decent housing?

A Solution from Syracuse: Using Data and Building Partnerships to Increase Stable and Quality Housing

Residential houses in Syracuse. Image courtesy of the City of Syracuse Innovation Team.

In Syracuse, New York, over 90 percent of occupied homes were built prior to the federal government’s ban in 1978 of lead-based paints in homes. And in a city like Syracuse where the majority of housing units are renter-occupied and a quarter of residents find themselves moving at least once a year, there exists a real concern for residents’, and in particular children’s, exposure to lead poisoning and other toxins in their homes.

To address this and other housing code violations that the city collects data on, Syracuse recently implemented Tenant-Owner-Proactive, or TOP — the city’s own version of a proactive rental inspection (PRI) program. Launched in 2017, TOP moves the city’s inspectors from operating on a compliance-based paradigm to one where inspectors are assigned areas of the city that they canvass and build relationships to understand issues in the community before a formal complaint is issued. Thus far, this program has proven to be a promising intervention for addressing multiple facets of the city’s housing quality and stability challenge.

City housing inspectors participating in TOP were able to identify 45 percent more health and safety violations than their peers, and compliance rates from landlords improved by 18 percentage points during the initial pilot. The forward-leaning nature of TOP, which relies on relationship-building and a strong data foundation, has allowed Syracuse to remove the burden of reporting from tenants, disrupting the tenant-landlord power imbalance. It also enhanced Syracuse’s ability to preserve the quality of its existing housing stock and mitigate public health risks.

Syracuse’s TOP is just one example of a PRI program. However, while these programs are flexible and can be customized to a city’s specific needs and resources, they often include a few core components across implementation including items such as:

  • Inspections of rental units by inspectors on a fixed schedule,
  • Rental registries,
  • Local ordinance permitting PRI,
  • Community education,
  • Enforcement of regulations, and
  • Remediation support.

Sprint Overview

As part of its City Solutions work, What Works Cities is partnering with the Syracuse Innovation Team and ChangeLab Solutions to offer a 12-week online learning opportunity for participating cities to explore:

  • How inspection programs can be designed to promote equitable housing outcomes,
  • The role of community engagement and human-centered design in developing inspection programs, and
  • Trade-offs between inspection program features within the city’s local fiscal and regulatory context.

In addition to learning sessions facilitated by the Syracuse Innovation Team and ChangeLab Solutions, cities will have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of how to use data to inform their own program design and share strategies with one another.

Interested in learning more but missed the introductory webinar on March 4th? No worries! You can watch the full webinar here.

At the conclusion of the 12 weeks, participating cities will have:

  • Identified local housing disparities (common health risks associated with housing specific to their community) and understand equity implications of implementing a proactive inspection program;
  • Identified and understood the implication of any state laws affecting the establishment of a local PRI program;
  • Identified key local stakeholders (e.g., Legal Aid, tenants organizations, health/housing coalitions, local champions) and began the community engagement process toward the design and adoption of a program to increase housing quality and stability;
  • Assessed baseline community need and readiness for the adoption of such a program;
  • Identified initial policy and program goals for the inspection program to be vetted by their community; and
  • Completed a City Action Plan, including community engagement, that outlines next steps and goals beyond the 12-week sprint period.

Sprint Details

  • When: Ten Thursday afternoons virtual learning sessions across 12 weeks, starting June 4, ending on August 20. Time 3PM ET/12PM PT.
  • Where: Weekly 1 to 1.5 hour webinars and/or cohort discussions delivered via an online learning platform.

Who Should Participate

While individuals are able to participate in the Sprint, cities are encouraged to bring together a team of key stakeholders to take part in the Sprint together in order to maximize the opportunity and establish a foundation for long-term success.

Participating members of the team could include, but are not limited to, leaders and staff from:

  • Municipal or county agencies in charge of housing inspection, code enforcement, public health, and/or community and neighborhood development/planning;
  • Departmental data analytics staff; and
  • Closely affiliated non-profit organization partners.

Participation Requirements

Participating cities are expected to participate fully in all 10 sessions, complete all assignments and readings, and engage sincerely in advancing on the goals of the Sprint.

If you are interested in participating, please fill out this registration form.

Sprint Facilitators

Weekly sessions will be led by the Syracuse Innovation Team and ChangeLab Solutions. The instructors will include:

Additional experts and practitioners with deep experience in this issue will also be invited to support our lead instructors.

Important Dates

  • Registration for the Sprint closes: May 28, 2020
  • Sprint begins: Thursday, June 4, 2020


Fill out this registration form!


Email us at CitySolutions@results4america.org

What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative launched in 2015, helps local governments across the country drive progress in their cities through the effective use of data and evidence to tackle pressing challenges that affect their communities.

Through its City Solutions work, What Works Cities partners with cities, community organizations, and other local and national organizations to accelerate the adoption of programs, policies, and practices that have previously demonstrated success in helping cities solve their most difficult challenges.



What Works Cities

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.