Gary Hogan is trained to notice when a neighbor’s grass is getting a bit too high. As a code ranger, he is empowered by the city to anonymously notify his neighbors when they might be at risk of getting a citation.
One day, Hogan, who’s also president of his Chapel Creek Neighborhood Association, noticed a neighbor’s grass was getting long. He knocked on the door to find that the neighbor’s husband recently passed away — she was having trouble maintaining her yard without him.
Rather than sending in a notice through the city’s code department, Hogan organized a group of neighbors to take care of her lawn. Now, the lawn is regularly maintained for free by another neighbor.
The Code Ranger program, created in 2003, aims to foster a greater sense of community responsibility and get residents involved in maintaining their neighborhoods. The city trains residents to identify and report possible code violations, giving their neighbors a chance to rectify the problem before a code officer issues a citation.
Hogan became a code ranger in 2015. The program allows him to meet his neighbors and educate them about the city’s ordinances. It’s one way to get back to a more cooperative way of living, reminiscent of Hogan’s childhood in the 50s, he said.
“I was seeing how neighbors weren’t living as neighbors anymore,” Hogan said. “Anything I can do to get back a little bit of that old world neighborliness, where people are looking out for each other — whether it’s crime watch groups or getting involved in their neighborhood association … all of those things.”
Growth of Fort Worth emphasizes need for code rangers
Shelly Torres has been the “Lone Ranger of the Code Rangers,”’ as she calls herself, for nine years. She’s responsible for training residents across Fort Worth to recognize city code violations and take initiative to report them to the code compliance department through Code Rangers.
Tasked with managing the program, Torres has spent the majority of her time with the city building it from the ground up. It was Torres who, in 2006, began a Spanish-speaking version of the training offered to those interested in the Code Rangers program.
She’s been doing the work since the program’s inception, but began leading the program by herself in 2013. Her time with the city is set to come to an end in January as she retires and begins what her daughter dubs her third life. In the interim, she is training her successor, as of yet unannounced, to follow in her footsteps and move the nearly 20-year-old program forward. Her main advice: Build community and share knowledge.
“It’s so important, once they’re educated, to let them take charge of their neighborhood and community,” Torres said.
How to attend a Code Rangers training
The last scheduled training of the year will be held Sept. 10, 2022. Classes are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Classes are limited to 15 people. All participants must live within Fort Worth city limits and be 18 years of age or older.
To sign up, fill out the registration form here. For more information, contact Shelly Torres at 817-269-8652 or Supervisor Ty Kitchens at 817-944-2613.
As the 13th largest city in the nation, Fort Worth has seen fast-paced growth in the years since the Code Rangers program was created. The population has grown by more than 300,000 people since its 2003 inception.
That growth makes Torres’ job — and the work of the code rangers — all the more important, Lola McCartney, spokesperson for the code compliance department, said.
“People tend to fall into old habits of where they lived before,” McCartney said. “They’re just not aware of the regulations and rules of the city. With these programs, it helps spread the education further.”
While the program can be completely anonymous, Hogan regularly introduces himself to neighbors while bringing their attention to possible code violations.
“I tried to attack it in a kind of neighborhood friendly way,” Hogan said. “It’s more like an education, trying to tell people things that will cause problems with the neighborhood code compliance officer.”
Hogan became heavily involved in his neighborhood when a former council member, the late Chuck Silcox, told him he should expect massive amounts of growth coming to his neighborhood.
“He said to me, ‘I need you with feet on the ground to try to make sure we do it as well as we can,” Silcox said. “That was the mantra that I was handed down.”
So Hogan went to work — serving for 21 years as president of his neighborhood association, serving as a citizen on patrol and serving as a code ranger.
Welcoming neighbors through education on code ordinances is one way to cope with growth on the westside, Hogan said. Homes in his neighborhood used to be 90% owner occupied, Hogan said.
Now, out of 889 homes, 352 have been bought by rental companies over the past three to four years. Still, Hogan makes his way over to the new renters’ homes and offers a welcome letter in the hopes that it will encourage them to invest in their neighborhood — despite the fact that they don’t own the property.
“I try to instill in them that they are welcome,” Hogan said.
When Hogan notices the renter’s home might be out of code, he offers to educate them — just as he does with all his neighbors. The code ranger classes allowed Hogan to approach his neighbors with as much knowledge as possible, he said.
“To build a community where people don’t just get handed a citation,” Hogan said.
Program intended to bridge gap between communities, code compliance
Code compliance isn’t always popular in Fort Worth neighborhoods. Concerns over equity have followed the department’s enforcement efforts, and some residents in impoverished neighborhoods criticize what they see as nitpicking by compliance officers.
“We rely heavily on teams to change the mindset regarding code compliance,” McCartney said. “People look at code as the bad guys, when we’re just trying to service the community.”
The Code Rangers program was created in part to improve that relationship, one neighbor at a time. When a code ranger notices a potential violation, they report it through an app — separate from the citywide MyFW app — to flag it. The city then sends a courtesy letter to the homeowner, informing them there may be a violation and that they have 10 days to rectify it before a code officer comes to inspect.
At the end of the 10-day grace period, a code ranger will drive by to check if the violation has been resolved. If not, they’ll report it in the app, and a code officer will take over from there.
“That gives the volunteer the opportunity to participate in resolving some of the lower priority violations in their neighborhood,” Ty Kitchens, a code compliance supervisor, said. “They can be resolved without enforcement involvement.”
In 2021, 83% of courtesy letters resulted in owners fixing the violation without enforcement action, Kitchens said.
“That allows code enforcement officers to devote more time to chronic problems, more complex issues,” he said. “ It helps make Fort Worth a cleaner and safer place to live.”
Not all neighborhoods participate. Currently, there are 55 neighborhood associations or homeowners associations actively participating, according to a map from the city. Individuals are able to participate outside of their respective neighborhood organizations as well, Kitchens said, so the map is not representative of all code rangers.
“We do outreach across the board, but it is very much on a need basis,” McCartney said. “You know, when inquiries come in about going to certain polls or certain events, those are per request and it just happens that a certain neighborhood is more active and trying to have us be participants.”
Rick Herring, neighborhood association president for Carter Riverside, said several people in his area participate in the program. The volunteers are more “boots on the ground,” he said, but the neighborhood could do with more.
“We haven’t had a lot of people take advantage of that program, that’s the issue,” he said. “I do think those who have, have definitely helped with code issues and relieving some of the pressures on code compliance officers because obviously they can’t do everything.’
Erasing the language barrier with translated materials
One of Torres’ primary goals during her city tenure has been to encourage bilingual education in everything the code compliance department does. She’s worked to build relationships with Spanish-speaking communities in Fort Worth that may not traditionally engage with the city due to a language barrier, and help them understand how to take advantage of city resources.
“I’m a big advocate for bilingual education,” Torres said. “Because I’ve worked with the Hispanic community for years, I get calls daily asking if I can translate something, and it’s about education.”
Her final initiative before she leaves next year is on the horizon — translating the code ranger reporting app to Spanish. Several neighborhoods with majority Spanish-speaking residents have joined the program in recent years, including one in the Polytechnic area.
“I have a very, extremely active Spanish speaking group in Poly,” she said. “They’re a small group, but they patrol and because of their effectiveness, on occasion, when I have a Spanish-speaking class, I’ll invite one of them to come and speak, maybe say a few words about their experience.”
Torres wants to build on that momentum moving forward.
“It’s important because we can reach so many more communities and citizens,” she said. “It seems logical. I want to jump up and everything like that because I’ve been asking for it (for a long time).”
Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. McCartney said other city departments look toward code compliance for inspiration when it comes to bilingual outreach, and the city’s communications department is working to model some of its plans after Torres’ existing initiatives.
“From a department standpoint, most of our programs recognized the need for Spanish translation,” McCartney said. “So a lot of our content is just automatically translated or you know, given an option and if they aren’t, we are progressively working to get Spanish versions if it’s not already included.”
Herring said it’s hard to engage with the Spanish-speaking residents in his neighborhood when there aren’t resources available in their preferred language.
“It’s very difficult to engage that particular community,” he said. “I think, the more bilingual officers and materials we have the better.”
The time Hogan spends on code rangers and other city programs can occasionally feel wasted, he said. At times, he’s tried transferring the reins of the neighborhood association to someone else, but he always ends up back in the saddle, Hogan said.
It’s in those moments that Hogan remembers his old friend — councilman Chuck Silcox.
“Every time I get to one of those little spots, somebody will call me or walk up to me and say, Mr. Hogan, I just want to thank you,” Hogan said. “To which I look above to the sky and say, ‘OK Chuck, I’ll keep doing it!’ ”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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