Is Code Enforcement the Friend or Enemy of Lower Income Family Home Ownership?

New Orleans    As a principle part of our organizing around adequate and affordable housing over decades, we’ve always believed in there being a “warrant of habitability” and some clear standards in housing codes that insured the safety and health of lower income families.  We still believe that, but we’re having a problem with the application of these principles that has all of us working with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign scratching our heads at a very fundamental level.

In an increasing number of communities where we are on the doors and working with families to move out of installment contracts of various stripes, we are finding some real fissures at the junction of families trying to achieve home ownership and the rigid and arbitrary enforcement of building codes.  Recently, we had to mourn with a family who lost their home not through foreclosure due to an onerous land contract, but after years of satisfying the contract and making repairs to improve the home and its value, code enforcement was forcing a series of additional repairs in an unreasonable amount of time that would have exceeded the value of the home itself much less the resources of the family, doing much of the work themselves.  This is nonsensical.  The result will be the abandonment and eventually, years later, the demolition of a home that could have been saved and instead will be a danger and eyesore in the community and yet another affordable home lost when we are so desperate to find them.  Sadly, this family in Detroit is not an isolated case, but one we are confronting over and over again across the country.

Paradoxically, while we are caught in the middle of a national affordable housing crisis for rental units coupled with an eviction surge and a continuing decrease of home ownership among lower income and minority families, rather than cities making the effort to maintain homes and families, they are pushing them out.  What sense does that make?  Furthermore, given the public economy of most cities, the number of building inspectors has dropped like a rock exacerbating the situation and forcing more rigid timelines as inspectors are unable to extend timelines and make repeated visits to insure reasonable compliance.  It’s one and done too often.  Code enforcement is a public good, but justice without mercy is a public disaster.

A deeper existential question that arises for our organizers and leaders revolves around whether or not we should respect peoples’ right to choose to live in precarious situations?  We don’t step in when we see an upper middle-class family living on the 2nd floor of their home in Houston after the flood or New Orleans after Katrina, while the house is being rebuilt from the studs on the first floor.  No inspector condemns the home.  No police come to push them out on the orders of the city.  If a lower income family “makes do” fixing as they can and living “around” repairs in order to own a home or afford the rent, do we have a way of measuring progress or determining the difference between exploitation and reasoned choice?

In Latin America and around the world, ACORN always sees homes in the process of construction with rebar on the roof for additional rooms or another floor, waiting for more resources for completion.  This is a measure of rising income and progress globally.  Why are we unable to allow more choices in the United States for families trying to determine their future and build assets or simply put up with some level of acceptable problems or even risks that might inconvenience without endangering?

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Please enjoy Ven Aqui by Canibales

Thanks to KABF.

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Real Estate Wealth Taxes as a Anti-Gentrification Tool

New Orleans   Recently I listened to an interview with a prominent local developer on WAMF in New Orleans as he was asked about gentrification.  He tried to walk the line between his self-interest and progressive values.  He was against displacement on one hand, but he opposed inclusionary zoning that would require developers to create affordable units in their properties.  He claimed it would sacrifice three units for every one that it created without mentioning that most of the three units built would be for high-end customers.  He opposed a tax on developments that would fund affordable housing or homeless programs.  He claimed the city and state had no money, so the real solution to gentrification had to be federal.

In some ways his argument was breathtaking in its chutzpah.  He was claiming to believe that gentrification was in some ways a pejorative term for a natural process, while opposing displacement, protecting his self-interest, and at the same time presenting himself as an advocate of a national remedy.  Unsaid was the fact that given our Developer-in-Chief president and the current situation in Congress and HUD, the chance of a federal remedy is much less than that odds Vegas would give a snowball in hell.

Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies, in a commentary in YesMagazine made a much stronger, more realistic case for local action, saying:

Municipalities should move with due haste to enact high-end real estate transfer taxes, requirements for the disclosure of beneficial ownership, and regulations aimed at the disruptive impact absentee-owner-investors are having on our cities.

Collins doesn’t claim this will stop gentrification but makes the case that it will discourage “rapacious global capital” from exacerbating displacement and artificially increasing ownership and rental prices by discouraging the kind of offshore wealth capital “parking” that has been so destructive in Vancouver and London.  As an example, he cites the situation in San Francisco, another favor of “ultra-high net worth individuals” with over $30 million in assets, where voters passed a high-end real estate transfer tax on residential and commercial properties with $5 million price tags and higher.  According to Collins, the tax…

“…the tax expected to generate $44 million a year, which has been allocated to fund free tuition for residents at San Francisco Community College and help pay for the city’s tree maintenance program.”

That’s not the same as building affordable housing, but it’s moving in the right direction.  Furthermore, there’s no reason it could not leverage other funds to construct affordable housing or provide city-based rent subsidies.

We can’t wait for Washington.  We have to act now, and whether a real estate tax on $5 million or $1 million or whatever, if such a tax builds local equity by creating affordable housing or other programs that fight displacement, it’s worth a fight.

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