Friday, July 29, 2022

How Metro Codes destroys affordable housing, tramples property rights and due process and victimizes Blacks, the elderly, and the poor and facilitates and accelerates gentrification.

by Rod Williams, June 29, 2022- The Nashville Scene is the type of publication that could use the term "birthing person," with a straight face if publications had faces. To read the Scene you may need to refer to the Liberal Speak Translation Guide, but it can be worth the effort because despite its trendy, super-woke, snarky, elitist, condescending tone, the Scene does, on occasion, do good journalism. It does so in its most recent issue with an analysis of the Metro codes department in an article by Radley Balko called, "Code Snitching: Nashvillians Are Weaponizing Metro Codes Against ‘Undesirable’ Neighbors."

The article lays out how codes enforcement leads to an unjust war against the poor, how it contributes to the loss of affordable housing, how codes rules are arbitrary and people are prosecuted without legal due process and the Environmental Court is a joke and runs roughshod over people because most people facing a codes complaint and taken to court are not the type people with money to hire a lawyer. I have long thought and sometimes said much the same thing. The Scene article backs it up with facts and figures and analysis of lots of data. If you care about justice, affordable housing, or the plight of the poor, you need to read this article.

Having spent the bulk of my working years helping low-income people become homeowners, I am deeply concerned about the issue of affordable housing, but oppose any approach that would mandate that private developers be required to build affordable housing. Thankfully the State legislature has prevented the city from going down that path. While I do not outright oppose the city building or subsidizing the building of affordable housing, I recognize that it is a drop in the bucket of what is needed and will have very little impact.  Also, the price point of most "affordable housing," is still way above what poor people can pay. The most important thing the city could do to advance affordable housing is to do no harm. And, the city does lots of harm by destroying affordable housing and restricting the housing supply which pushes up prices.  I explain some of how the city destroys affordable housing in a blog post, "My advice to the new Mayor Cooper appointed Affordable Housing Task Force."

One way the city destroys affordable housing is by the use of codes. Let me tell of my own experience. I own a rental house. It is the house I lived in prior to where I live now.  It is a modest 2 bedroom, 1 bath house in Woodbine in the Radnor subset of Woodbine.  I rent the house for a modest $900 a month. I am sure that I could sell it for close to $275,000, or I could put $10,000 in it, get a new tenant and raise the rent to $1600 a month. I don't, because of a couple reasons.  

One, I don't make a good evil money-grubbing landlord. I still have the heart of a social worker, I guess.  My tenant is an American citizen who came here as a Cuban refugee on a raft. Despite living in this country for a long time, he speaks with a heavy accent and does not have a high school diploma. He works picking up and selling scrap metals. At times he barely scraps by.  He always pays his rent on time, however, and never complains about anything. He would have a difficult time paying a higher rent. 

In addition to being compassionate, another reason I don't sell the house or improve it and raise the rent is simply because of inertia.  I have gotten to where I don't want to deal with stuff unless I have to.  I would rather just coast. And, I don't need the extra money.

I get phone texts, phone calls, postcards, letters, and emails all of the time, sometimes a dozen or more a week, wanting to make me a cash offer on the house.  I also occasionally get turned into codes.  I suspect,  but don't know, that developers ride around looking at houses that look a little unkept or not up to date and turn the house into codes. This article provides other people's experiences that reinforce my belief that code complaints are used as a weapon by developers to accelerate gentrification.  If a person like me knows he is losing money on his house and is kind of tired of being a landlord anyway, and received a code compliant, that may be all it takes to push him into selling the house for a cash offer or to call a realtor and put in on the market.  If you don't need the rental income, who needs the headache of dealing with codes? I have no doubt codes is destroying more affordable housing units than the city can ever build. 

The Scene article covers so much ground, I am not going to try to summarize it but will provide some excerpts:

... From the street, or even the front yard, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why, according to Benford, inspectors from the Metro Codes Department have visited the couple more than 50 times. Or why, he says, they’ve racked up $3,500 in fines. Or why in 2016, just a few years after the couple finally paid off their mortgage, the city put a lien on their home — one that remains in place today. ... the first problem is the small fishing boat the couple has parked on a trailer in their front yard. That apparently isn’t allowed. can’t have tools that aren’t put away. He said I can’t have the work bench. ... Everything you see out here, they told me I can’t have.” 

... Nashville prohibits residents from keeping inoperable or unregistered vehicles on residential properties unless they’re stored in an enclosed garage. Paradoxically, the city also forbids residents from making major repairs on their own vehicles ... the same Codes inspector has repeatedly shown up at his home over the years solely to demand that Benford prove that the car is operable. “I lost count of how many times he made me do that,” Benford says. “More than 20.”

“Think about who a system like this targets, and who it benefits,” ...“Poor people don’t typically call Codes on their neighbors, because poor people don’t trust the legal system. The people who benefit from complaint-driven systems are people for whom the legal system already works perfectly. Wealthy people. White people. Developers. And they usually use it as a weapon against people who don’t have the means to fight back” 

Tennessee in general is among the worst states in the country when it comes to predatory fines and fees. Environmental courts, which exist only in Davidson and Shelby counties, can add another layer of harassment. Nashville and its leaders also have strong incentives to keep the system as it is. “Want to know who benefits most from gentrification?” Hollin asks. “It ain’t developers or landlords. It’s the city of Nashville. For all the talk about affordable housing you hear from the Metro Council, remember that every time a poor family has to sell their house and move out of a ‘desirable’ neighborhood, what happens? A bigger house goes up. The property value goes up. And the city gets more tax revenue.” ...

“I’d compare it to anti-loitering laws,” ... “You have these vague laws that are wildly open to interpretation, that essentially make everyone a potential criminal. But then you have this added component where everyday people become the enforcers, with no accountability for false reporting. So everyone is a potential criminal, but the only people actually criminalized are those who happen to have neighbors who don’t like them.”

... “It shows that low-income people tend not to call Codes on other low-income people, and few people call Codes on wealthy people. It’s usually newer, wealthier residents calling codes on older, poorer people who have lived in these neighborhoods for years.”

... the inspector assigned to our case, ...  told me every plant on the slope longer than 12 inches would need to be removed. He threatened me with a fine of $50 per day, per weed, if we didn’t comply. 

Jamie Hollin recounts the first time he visited Davidson County Environmental Court, ... “I was stunned and appalled,” he says. “And frankly, to call it a court gives it way too much credit. It’s a sham. A joke. A predatory body. Here’s the common denominator among the people I saw in that room: poor, Black and elderly. Ninety-five percent of them didn’t have a lawyer. And their rights were being trampled.” ... Environmental Court is Hollin’s latest battle. He wants it abolished. 

I commend the writer of the Scene article for a job well done.  And, I commend former Metro Councilman Jamie Holin for his fight for justice.  I know Jamie Hollin is a progressive, but labels don't matter if you are fighting the good fight.  I might disagree with Hollin on some other issues, but we are certainly on the same page on this one.  I also am pleased to see The Institute for Justice, one of the recipients of my financial support, join this fight for justice in Nashville. Over the years they have fought the city over several issues when the city tried to deny people the use of their property, or the right to work, or were the victims of eminent domain abuse.

What should be done? In my view, the codes department should be required to draw up less ambiguous codes, so one would clearly know what is and is not a code violation, the Environmental Court should be abolished, anonymous complaints should be abolished, and the codes budget should be cut. 

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