Monday, June 08, 2009

Can't Afford To Be Poor Anymore

California’s budget situation is so dire, the state’s contemplating the abolishment of welfare. If this happens I expect other states to follow; the money to fund such programs simply doesn’t exist anymore. The last time I set foot in California was when I was 11, so I have no firsthand knowledge of what’s going on out there. But here’s a bet I feel safe to make: though the state might completely dismantle its various help-the-poor programs, it won’t even think about dismantling the myriad laws and regulations that make being poor a hell of a lot harder than it has to be. Neither will any other states following in California’s footsteps.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In re: you comment that a bureaucrat must have thought they were doing the right thing: Due to poor choices as a youth, I've been a bureaucrat for well over 25 years. We bureaucrats often do things we think are stupid or even wrong because the regulations give us no choice,... other than quitting - with the sure and certain knowledge that someone else will have no choice but to do the same thing. Sometimes we can mitigate the stupidity a bit, but if our overseers realize we're doing that, they often invent even more controls to be sure that we stop substituting our judgement for theirs.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

It's a tough call, Anonymous. I'm not trying to Godwin this here -- and for all that I despise bureaucrats of the "make people homeless for their own good" variety, I do NOT equate them with Nazis -- but where does "If I don't do this, someone else will anyway," stop working? Had any one concentration camp guard quit, there'd be plenty more people eager to take the job, and the guards were just following orders, but we still hanged them at Nuremberg.

That said, evicting people from less-than-stellar homes is a far cry from murdering them in boxcar lots, and honesty forces me to admit that (especially in this economy) if my job required me to force a poor family onto the street because their off-the-street housing wasn't deemed good enough, I doubt I'd make a point of quitting so someone else could get his hands dirty doing the eviction.

But then, I've never held the type of job where I'd be required to exert certain forms of legal authority over my neighbors.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for not going Godwin. This sort of thing is full of dillemas. For instance, if we bureaucrats see that a given policy is probably doing more harm than good, we can often negotiate ways of mitigating the harm with higher-ups. Very few people in government service are actually malevolent. Most want to do good when they can.
The question usually comes down to whose interests are being served. If the politicians, both elected and appointed, have no problem with our using our judgement at our level to make things better, we can usually do good without fear. Politicians have problems when either a key constituant wants things handled a particular way or when the press is involved. Please understand that when pols see the press attempting to put pressure on them, they don't usually see "the problem" as the problem. They see the press as the problem. They want you to go away, or to praise them. But you know all this.
Oh well. I enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing it.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

As a former bureaucrat, I can say that it was amazing how much stupid stuff got f'd up and never actually happened. It was almost like someone was intentionally in the way, but it was always the handoff points that were the problem, never specific individuals.

Not doing is far more important than doing many times.

11:01 AM  

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