Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Is this liberty?

D.C. Battling Boom in Illegal Work on Homes

It's good to crack down on "illegal" activities, right? But that presupposes the government's definition of "illegal" is a true crime. The article defines what people are doing that is so criminal:
The District's skyrocketing real estate prices have fueled an increase in illegal construction as property owners across the city are building and renovating homes without obtaining the required permits, according to D.C. officials and a review of city records....

Many of the District's violators are homeowners building additions because they cannot afford to move to more spacious homes, while others are investors renovating properties in the hopes of selling them at a substantial profit, city officials and community activists say. The number of stop-work orders also reflects an aggressive crackdown by the D.C. regulatory agency, which once had a reputation for slipshod enforcement of building codes....

Patrick Canavan, the agency's new director, noted that the permit process is critical because it triggers inspections that show whether buildings meet safety standards and because improvements filed on the permits help determine property tax assessments....

A review of 300 stop-work orders citywide showed such violations as hanging drywall before the city has inspected electrical and plumbing work, and renovating kitchens and bathrooms without building permits. Officials said other cases involve property owners who obtain permits for small projects such as decks but instead build additions, and contractors constructing houses without proper approvals....

John Frye, a community activist, frequently cruises Deanwood, looking for illegal construction. "They're disrespecting the law," Frye said of some builders. "They're working with the stop-work orders posted where you can see them." ...

Edmund L. Peters, a permit expeditor, said it can take up to six months for homeowners and builders to get a building permit for a new house.

"The reason why people don't get permits is because the DCRA makes it very difficult for people to get them," Peters said.
Permits requiring fees are, of course, a form of taxation. The state wants it cut, but at the same time it obfuscates the real problem with housing "permits": they're an oxymoron, directly defying the "private" in "private property." To seek a permit is to petition the state for its permission to use the property you already own. Who owns it, you or the state? If you do, why must you seek the state's blessing? Applying a permit for your private property, in other words, is to acknowledge the state's superiority over your God-given rights. That is not freedom at all!

Previously I've detailed what Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe: he declared certain houses "illegal," then had his police forcibly evict the residents and destroy the houses. D.C. isn't destroying homes, but by issuing fines it's acting under the same principle as Mugabe: both demand that people seek its permission for their housing, otherwise their homes are "illegal."

It's worth quoting Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged again: "There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."

The permits and the government requiring them are what are criminal, not the families or developers. And why must big media give "developer" such a bad connotation? A developer is merely a Knightian entrepreneur, an economic actor who undertakes risk. True to that definition, real estate developers create (often good) jobs in their calculated quest for profit. Socialists and big media (often interchangeable terms) would have you believe it's evil for anyone to make a big profit, but as I've written, everyone else certainly benefits when the "rich" become wealthier, regardless of the proportion in which they spend or save. Developers, at least when they're not violating others' rights, benefit society by creating something new, or improving something, that someone in society is willing to buy. If a developer expands a $200,000 house (or constructs a house on an empty $50,000 lot), then sells it for $500,000, by definition the buyer valued it at more than $500,000. You pay a dollar for something only if it benefits you by more than a dollar.

Are permits necessary because unrestrained, willynilly construction can adversely affect the neighbors? Certainly there could be pollution, dirt and hazardous dust, and loud noise. But as I wrote a couple of nights ago, the Declaration of Independence defines the role of government as securing our rights to life, liberty and property; that does not mean preventing them from ever being infringed. Government can punish but not directly inhibit; that's simply the nature of true freedom.

A government permit in and of itself does nothing to help the homeowner anyway. That piece of paper does not assist in actual construction, it has never stopped the wrong house from being bulldozed, nor does it guarantee "safety" any more than the free market. The free market takes care of "safety" in two ways. A smart consumer does research as to which contractor is trustworthy and who is not. A higher charge can (but not necessarily) mean a better contractor, so that's why the consumer investigates his reputation. Second, the consumer can, if he wants, hire a third party to examine the workmanship. So there is no requirement here that government get involved, not even to prevent safety violations.

If your construction somehow injures your neighbor and/or damages his property, you can be held liable in both criminal and civil courts. That would happen even if you had a permit. If your plumbing or electrical wiring is faulty and affects the neighborhood, you can be liable for all damages: so you'd better hire someone competent, lest you have to sell your home to pay for damages to your neighbors' property. A prosecutor might even show evidence that you deliberately went with someone you knew did inferior work, which a jury might find is criminal negligence. The best motivation for ensuring good work turns out not to be concern for your own property, but that you don't want to damage your neighbors' property.

What if your construction is too loud? That's what a jury is for. A jury would likely determine construction at 2 a.m. is too much (and the judge can issue an injunction for certain hours of the day), but that during the middle of the day is "reasonable." You could also make arrangements with your neighbors to compensate them for noises. If one neighbor holds out, you could still proceed and trust that a jury will side with you.

Would this flood the court system? Certainly there would be an increase in cases, perhaps with neighbors suing out of spite. That's why I favor laws requiring plaintiffs to pay defendants' legal costs, if the judge rules the suit was "frivolous." Remember, though, that there's a big bureaucracy to issue the permits. It would disappear, as would a need for inspectors and increased police activity, so things would even out, and the people would have an increase in liberty. How can a rational person believe that renovating a bathroom should require waiting six months for a permit?

What galled me most in the news article wasn't how D.C. demands permits but takes forever to issue them (a topic Thomas Sowell has written about). What chafed me was reading about the busybody "citizen activist" who "cruises" around. Presumably that means a car, so unless he's physically handicapped, that means he's reporting "illegal" construction that is not near his own house. Therefore it's doubtful he's personally affected by the construction -- then what business is it of his? Let the neighbors adjacent to the construction, not him, file complaints about pollution, dust, noise, etc. Or is he like the environmental zealots that Dr. Sowell described, who inflict their visions of "the way things should be" on people who just want a home?

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