Tag Archives: fines

Bullying Low-and-Moderate Income Homeowners with Paperwork and Fines

New Orleans      I thought of an article I had torn out of the New York Times and stuck into my bag to read more closely on my quick trip to Katmandu recently, when I got a weird email on the same trip.  The Historic Districts Landmarks Commission (HDLC) in New Orleans had sent us a bizarre missive, labeled as a Demolition notice, or more accurately, a threat to demolish, for the ACORN Global Enterprise property on Ponce de Leon where we operated the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse social enterprise.  Admittedly, they caught my attention, and, sure enough, many of our properties have now found themselves in Historic Districts where we can potentially be subjected to such bullying.

We knew of no complaints.  There had been no HDLC inspection.  What was the issue?  Finally, reading the thing, it was just a bullying threat because they had somehow observed that several weatherboards needed to be fixed.  This is New Orleans and a tropical climate and a large two-story frame house.  There are always going to be weatherboards that need to be tightened and fixed.  It is a commonplace matter of no great consequence that will cost a couple of hundred to repair at most, so what was the beef?  The HDLC notice seemed to want us to come in and get a permit to do the work.  I wasn’t born yesterday.  You only need a permit from HDLC if you are altering a property in some material way in an historic district.  No permit is needed for routine repairs that maintain existing conditions.  This whole thing on paper seems to add up to little more than municipally sanctioned harassment and a revenue scam for a small agency.  The actions of HDLC are the real nuisance here.  Does one waste the time messing with them or just fix the couple of weatherboards and let it ride?

The story in the Times demonstrated how harrowing – and expensive – such bullying and nuisances can become.  The article focused on the spiraling Catch-22 homeowners in Queens and elsewhere in New York City can face over simple problems like this in their homes.  The NYC Building Department might issue a citation for something, but confused homeowners often uncertain how to respond, delaying, or not understanding the procedure find themselves facing a series of fines for lateness that multiply and snowball.  As the Times reports:

 “Before filing a certification, homeowners must have the condition fixed, which often begins with paying for a permit.  But before they can get the permit, they must pay additional civil penalties, incurred alongside the fines for construction issues.  Until the civil penalties are paid, owners will receive one fine after another for failing to comply.”

Understand this clearly, this is often after the problem was fixed and repaired, eliminating any safety concern or in the case of the niggling HDLC in New Orleans, aesthetic issue was addressed.

The Times pictured one house where three violations had incurred $495,800 in fines!  What in the world is the purpose of that?  Under what rationale of public policy can this level of bullying and predation by public bodies be excused?

I can think of none, and I believe there is none.

***

Please enjoy Dark Night Of The Soul by Van Morrison.

Thanks to KABF.

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Silent Victory over Comcast at FCC on Blocking Low-Income Access to Internet

New Orleans    Local 100, United Labor Unions, turned in scores of complaints from our members in Houston and Little Rock as did Action United in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the obstacles Comcast put in the way of lower income families attempting to gain access to the internet and inexpensive computers.  We endured meeting after meeting with high and low level Comcast executives and their dissembling about their highly political, but half-stepping and half-hearted bad faith effort to comply with the terms of the FCC approval of their acquisition of NBC/Universal, which required them to provide the reduced service to eligible families.  We enlisted Congressional help in Texas and elsewhere to try and get the FCC to act to enforce the order, but were continually met with silence.   It was clear to us that this was about marketing, public relations, and money, and categorically not about opening up great internet access to lower income families.

Or at least so it seemed, but it turned out we had won a victory from the FCC without them being willing to dignify us with a direct response, and of course Comcast was anything but open about being sent behind the woodshed for trying to fleece the poor, rather than lower barriers for these families.   Finally, we stumbled on a brief, buried item in the financial press, so here’s a big shout out to Brad Reed for his June 29, 2012 piece  for reading the fine print on FCC press releases:

FCC smacks Comcast for hiding standalone broadband option

Cable companies just love to sell bundled services for one important reason — it makes them buckets of money — but Comcast last year made an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission that it would actively promote an affordable standalone broadband option to customers as one condition of being allowed to purchase NBC Universal. Per GigaOm, it seems that Comcast didn’t live up to its end of the bargain because the FCC has slapped the company with an $800,000 fine for allegedly making it difficult for consumers to find its cheap standalone broadband plan. The FCC said in a statement that Comcast “was not adequately marketing its standalone broadband services.” In addition to paying its $800,000 fine, Comcast will agree to continue offering its cheap standalone broadband plan through at least February 21st, 2015, one year longer than in the original agreement.

So, yes, we won.  $800 grand is nothing to Comcast, but we will certainly rev up our efforts again to make them finally have to deliver and another year of their compliance review will cost them dearly in this program.

We found this press squib as we prepared for a meeting to assess this effort in January with our allies.  The real question before us now is how we can redouble our efforts to see if anything has changed, or whether or not we have to go back to the FCC again.  Will it now be possible to immediately call and get access to the program at any Comcast number or will it still be only if some low income family stumbles on the right number so they are not “bundled up” and up-selled?  Will there still only be one location out of the more than a dozen in Houston that allows an application?  Will Comcast still try to blame everything on schools as if they are somehow responsible for compliance on an FCC order?

We will be even more shocked to find a real change in Comcast than we were surprised at finally stumbling on to this victory.  The old saying about “arrogance comes before a fall” comes to mind here.  Comcast thinks it got over.  A lot of brochures and not so much as lifting a finger to really get access, and now the fog of silence will mean that no one knows about the program and the many low income families that were bait-and-switched last year won’t even know change is pretended.

We’ll double down now, but the FCC can’t just issue an extension and nearly a million dollar fine, and really believe that Comcast is going to do right, much less better.

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