Public health workers might be used to making seemingly boring concepts engaging to the public. How do we encourage everyone to get a flu shot this year? How can we make hand-washing exciting? But one topic doesn’t need to be gussied up to get folks on board: Housing code enforcement!

You might be laughing, but at Tuesday’s Annual Meeting session on “Home is Where Health Starts: Using Law to Address Housing Concerns,” discussions of how code enforcement can make homes and people healthier was riveting. I was riveted!

Here are the facts: Almost 6 percent of homes in the U.S. are inadequate for living. These dangerous dwellings are almost always inhabited by people with low incomes. Asthma, lead poisoning and falls pose serious risks to already vulnerable populations. And while “housing codes are the primary regulatory tool” for protecting people, they are widely believed to be failing, said session presenter Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University.

Code enforcement has been an orphaned cause for decades because there’s no robust national effort to improve code enforcement, Burris said, and there has never been sustained efforts to define, test, refine and/or diffuse efficient and effective models for housing codes and enforcement.

But there could be — especially with the Network for Public Health Law’s “five essential public health law services framework.” Those services are access to evidence and expertise; expertise in designing legal solutions; building political will; implementing, enforcing and defending legal solutions; and policy surveillance and evaluation.

The public health community — lawyers, on-the-ground workers and advocates — is involved in every step of the framework, which proposes building “better health faster for all,” said Donna Levin, national director of the network, who presented the framework during the session. The framework, which was implemented in a pilot program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is designed to break down silos between disciplines. Lack of collaboration, Levin noted, has harmed progress on code enforcement for years, leaving key services missing in many areas.

Funding, too, keeps code enforcement from happening. Burris suggested that cities are strapped for cash to, well, enforce the enforcement. Strategic enforcement takes money and after paying for police, fire and other essential services, Burris said many cities don’t have the cash necessary to pay for inspectors and the investments needed to make improvements to dwellings. In fact, there’s no evidence of major organizations even focusing on this kind of work, he added. But that could change.

“Helping cities implement and enforce housing codes is a really important thing to do,” Burris said, and there’s both enormous potential and a moral imperative to do so. Maintaining the status quo, in which enforcement is seen as just a symptom of broken markets and many believe resources are better off invested in funding for affordable housing, is what we’ve been doing for decades. And Burris added, “We haven’t seen substantial progress.”