Google Earth: Spying Housing-Code Scofflaws

Google Earth is something Frank Cassidy is definitely familiar with. As president of the Florida Association of Code Enforcement, he sees it as a valuable tool for address identification and for getting some history on a property. He also says statewide agencies have begun using Google Earth as a tool for investigating illegal additions to homes and other code violations.

Cassidy, who has been in the business more than 20 years and is a former Los Angeles police officer, told HousingWatch: "The primary way the housing market is affecting our job is that our goal of compliance is being jeopardized due to foreclosed properties -- because there's no responsible party coming forward.

"So that in itself is forcing agencies to do their job more effectively and proactively," he says. Google Earth, among other tools, is playing an increasingly important role.

The free online application is used to look at a property's development from different shots and angles. But Cassidy is quick to point out that it's a supplementary tool, not the sole resource.
Google Earth does have its limits, says Roy Fyffe, a building official for the City of Burnet, Texas and second vice president of the American Association of Code Enforcement. For example, it's essential to check the date on the maps used in Google Earth.

"Google Earth is good, depending on what part of the country you're in," Fyffe told HousingWatch. "It gives fairly good information on a specific property and is a good additional resource; however ... where there's not a dense population, there's not as much of a need to take aerials every year, so maps of certain regions may be dated."

Code enforcers already have an arsenal of tools, such as county appraisal information and the mapping tool Pictometry which is a membership-fee-based website updated nationally every two years. Fyffe says they will use their own Geographic Information Systems maps to help them identify and confirm any violation. But he adds: "Aerial photographs are not totally reliable to positively identify, I'd rather see it in person for myself."

He also echoes Cassidy's sentiments that the entire economic situation is wreaking havoc on the code enforcement industry, due to major cutbacks and fewer staff. That's where Google Earth's aerial mapping helps them see what the violations are. But again, the images must be very recent in order to be accurate. One positive gained from the foreclosure crisis -- hard to believe but true -- is that organizations have sprung up that are dealing solely with property maintenance, on both a state and national level, which in turn is helping those in the industry do their job more effectively.

Cassidy notes that consumers have more appreciation for code enforcers now than ever. A higher degree of dilapidation is putting stress on the housing stock, making it crucial to demand that people take care of their properties.

"The word code enforcement is no longer high grass and weeds," Cassidy says. "If you never appreciated code enforcement before, that's changed now.

"It's forcing us to bridge gaps, which is a great thing. Because that's what we're all about: quality of life, property value and crime prevention."

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