Originally published in The Guardian
If you see a woman drowning the decent thing to do is toss her a life buoy, or at least leave her the hell alone; sitting on her head to push her deeper under water is wholly unacceptable behaviour. Unless you live in America and work for some local-level housing authority, in which case it’s part of your job.
Being poor sucks in any country but especially in the US, which is so proud of being the Richest Nation on Earth that it makes sure everyone lives up to that whether they can afford to or not. Consider the case of Avondale, Arizona resident Christine Stevens, who has been in deep water (financially speaking) since losing her bank job in January 2009. She decided to discontinue her electricity service and make do with solar panels – Arizona has no shortage of sunshine, after all – and using an ice box in lieu of a refrigerator.
But such frugality defies Avondale city codes, which require a refrigerator, heating and cooling system, and electricity enough for all. So Stevens’ house was condemned, and Stevens kicked out. “We explained to her that the panels weren’t enough to sustain a quality of life there,” Avondale’s code enforcement manager said. Stevens is back in her home now, after spending 11 nights sleeping in her car, but could still lose the property.
When you’re worried about someone’s quality of life, adding them to the ranks of the homeless might not be the best way to improve it, but it’s close enough for government work. Sometimes more drastic measures are needed, like the ones taken by city officials in Mountain View, California: they kicked an old lady named Loretta Pangrac out of her house, demolished it, and billed her almost $20,000 for their troubles.
Pangrac’s roof was in bad shape and she couldn’t afford to repair it, so the whole house was condemned as a dangerous “public nuisance” – even though Pangrac was the only member of the public actually endangered by it. To recoup their self-imposed costs, city officials placed a lien against the property. Even without the lien, it’s doubtful Pangrac could sell the vacant lot for enough to buy another house. She suggested living in a trailer on her land, but of course that would violate city ordinances. Laws against trailers are commonplace, since citizens living in trailers because they can afford no better tarnish the reputation of the Richest Nation on Earth and the municipalities therein.
When I was a kid, sitting through history classes and learning how lucky I was to live in a free country rather than some uptight dictatorship or constipated nanny state, I remember being especially offended by the monarchies of yore with their snobbish “sumptuary laws“. What kind of government would tell me I can’t wear purple because my ancestors were peasants rather than aristocrats? But old-time sumptuary laws forbidding poor people from living like their “betters” are still preferable to America’s modern version, requiring people to live like their “betters” whether they can afford to or not.
Housing codes were passed with good intentions – of course we don’t want people living in substandard housing – but what the enforcers don’t understand (or refuse to admit) is that for some people, the choice isn’t between “good housing” and “bad housing” but “bad housing” or “no housing at all”. Living in a house without a refrigerator is better than living in a refrigerator box, but America’s modern-day sumptuary laws won’t let poor people like Christine Stevens make that choice for themselves.