Susan Phillips’ job isn’t an undemanding one. It requires clear concentration, long hours and constant communication with the city’s four inspectors, who patrol 10,000 residences, checking for housing code violations.
“We enforce the property maintenance code and the life safety code for all private and public property,” Phillips explained, sitting behind the desk in her office on Church Street. The same building houses a police substation.
A well-dressed woman who takes a moment to think before answering, Phillips oversees a staff of eight including a nuisance officer.
In code enforcement, the logical philosophy is being proactive, not reactive.
“We want to stay on top of it so there isn’t a lot of blight and tall grass and trash in our city,” she said.
Most commonly, property owners are cited for having grass higher than 8 inches and unsightly trash outside. In 2013, there were a total of 11,000 violations and 30 percent were for high grass in the city of 30,000 people.
Other code violations include household trash thrown in the yard, piles of tree limbs, broken windows, peeling paint, a deteriorating roof and no electricity or plumbing.
Not only do high grass and strewn garbage detract from the beauty of a property, but it creates a mindset that more trash can be tossed there.
“Then, before you know it, windows are being broken there. Then crimes are being done. It’s very important to maintain these properties not just for aesthetics but also for safety,” Phillips said.
She praised Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan, who has said she doesn’t want her officers chasing suspects through yards and tripping over tree limbs or being cut by broken glass.
“She gets it,” Phillips said.
“This is primarily a thankless job,” she continued.
“People are not happy when you tell them they can’t live in their house anymore because there is no electricity or no running water. They are not happy when you tell them their house is condemned. You have to explain to people that their house doesn’t meet the livability requirements. They are unhappy, but there are life safety concerns,” Phillips said in a serious tone.
“When we have to condemn a home we try to work with that person to help,” They are shown how to find shelter, food and financial assistance.
Overall, the town has a good compliance rate and, generally, success when cases are taken to court.
So is talking to someone whose home she condemned months, maybe years, ago and being told if she hadn’t insisted, the family wouldn’t be in a better situation today.
“This is a very serious work environment. It can be difficult when people tell you they don’t have the money to make repairs.
“My day starts at 8 and ends at 5 or so. I am very busy. I’m pulled in million directions,” Phillips said.
For 19 years she has worked for the city, and began her current position in May.
For a year prior, she was acting director of code compliance and before that, housing supervisor. Because that position hasn’t been filled, she’s also handling housing supervisor responsibilities and interviewing applicants to find a replacement.
Seeing blight every day hasn’t made Phillips lose confidence in mankind, because she focuses on the outcome.
Recently, the city sponsored Service Week in the Princeton Street area and provided residents with resources including smoke detectors.
That day, 52 detectors were given, free of charge, and 40 more broken ones were replaced, greatly increasing residents’ safety.
“That’s the kind of stuff that excites me. That’s why it’s rewarding to me,” Phillips said.
“I don’t need somebody to say, ‘Hey, good job’ every day when I see this.”
Reach Susan Canfora at firstname.lastname@example.org.