Can't Afford To Be Poor Anymore
Technology makes life easier for the poor; clothes and food and books to stimulate the mind are cheaper now than at any time in history. Let’s hear it for weaving machines, the printing press, the Green Revolution and what have you! But every time technology gives poor folks a break, the government turns around and breaks something else for them. (Or maybe I should say “for us” – God knows the Man About The House here isn’t with me for my money.)
Consider housing. That’s my main financial concern these days (barring the possibility of a morbidly expensive medical problem, but I view that calamity on par with an asteroid striking the earth: I’ll focus my worrying on matters I can possibly control). Food is cheap; even in my broke-college-student days I never had the problem “I can’t afford to feed myself.” Clothing costs don’t concern me either, and even electricity – which is horribly expensive here in Connecticut – is still manageable so long as you remember to turn off unused lights and take other simple precautions.
No, whenever the worry “How will I manage to pay this month’s bills” crossed my mind, the bill in question was usually “housing.” Rent has always been my single biggest expense by far, and if I bought a house then my mortgage would be the prime concern. Considering how technology has, over the past century, brought about massive drops in the real cost of food, clothes, books and manufactured items, why haven’t housing prices dropped accordingly?
In a way, they have. I could buy a manufactured home, or one of those kit-built deals, for a relatively few thousand dollars. Another few thousand buys a piece of land – yes, even in my ridiculously expensive state of Connecticut – big enough to install the house, and then of course a few grand more for various utility hookups: water, electric and sewer.
I could afford to buy a house for cash, or at least with a loan small enough to pay off in a year – yes, even with my ridiculously small journalist’s salary. And even a journalist’s salary goes a long, long way if you don’t have to pay for housing.
But there’s one problem: I’d never be allowed to do that. Such behavior violates the zoning codes! Prefab homes are not allowed because they’d lower the value of the Toll Brothers McMansions down the street. And I could never buy such a tiny patch of land, not when the zoning codes require new houses to be built on nice big parcels.
A few months ago my town condemned a small apartment house – and put its tenants onto the street in the middle of winter – because the tenants were using space heaters in lieu of central heat. Were the space heaters a fire hazard? No, but The Code demands that all buildings not merely be heated but have built-in heat, whether the tenants and the landlord can afford it or not.
Don’t get me wrong – I find built-in heat vastly preferable to a space heater. But “an apartment with nothing but space heaters” beats the hell out of “no apartment at all.” Or “a shelter,” which my town made available (I hope) for the people evicted from their homes.
A few years ago I read of a case in Manhattan where a man was evicted from his basement apartment because the “basement” was actually a “cellar” (the difference has to do with what percentage was underground), and it’s illegal for New Yorkers to live in a cellar. So that man, too, lost his home on the theory “living on the street is better than living in a cellar.” Obviously the man did not think so, else he would’ve stayed on the street in the first place (which is much cheaper than renting a room in Manhattan). But the bureaucrat who evicted him was doubtless convinced that he, the bureaucrat, was doing the right thing.
Could be worse, for me. At least I don’t have kids. One kid might be manageable. With two kids, I’d better hope they’re both the same gender, or else I’d have to keep them in separate bedrooms once they reached toddler age. And a couple with more than two kids can say good-bye to any hope of ever owning a fuel-efficient car, since mandatory seatbelt laws require a family of five to drive a minivan at minimum.
About three years ago, for my then-newspaper job, I had to attend a zoning board meeting in a rural town where people were complaining about “subdivisions” and “15 percent green space.” At first I thought they were complaining about a law requiring developers to have a certain amount of green space – say, a playground – in any new subdivision they built. But no. It was more insidious than that: turns out if you own a piece of property and want to subdivide it – say, you own two acres and want to give one to your adult kid so he can build a house of his own – you have to turn 15 percent of that land over to the town, which will own it and make sure it remains “green space.”
I don’t remember, if I ever knew, the details of how the hell that passed Constitutional muster; the job didn’t give me the time to embark upon libertarian-flavored investigative-journalism projects. Besides, the subdivision rule is pretty popular among people with no property they’re trying to subdivide. The green space law keeps their property values high, and although the folks in that town occasionally worry about the town’s lack of affordability – “My kids can’t afford to live in the town where they grew up!” – they never talk about dismantling the laws that make affordability so unattainable.