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Poor People - How to Push Them Away

People who are poor are more likely to live in ugly homes. Thus when we seek to ban ugliness in our communities, we are attacking the poor whether we - or they - realize it. Even worse, it is possible that many people realize it on some level, and that their laws are meant to push lower-income residents away.

Getting Rid of Mobile Homes

The most typical example is the legal process which happens in almost every community at some point in its development. As home values go up and a town grows, residents become more worried about property values, and so less tolerant of "ugly" housing. More specifically, almost every town eventually bans mobile homes.

There is a reason for mobile homes, of course. They are cheap housing for poor people, or those who just want to spend less on housing. This is true whether they are bought or rented. But to many who do not live in mobiles, they are considered eyesores. They must be kept out of town.

The first step then, is to ban mobile homes (and sometimes modulars) from the city. This results in mobile home parks and neighborhoods in the townships on the outskirts of a city. As the area grows economically, these outer townships eventually want to get rid of the mobiles as well, so they stop allowing new parks. Then, the law stipulates something like you can only replace one or move a new one in if it is less than five years old. Eventually they just outlaw any mobile homes from entering the township. If your existing one burns down, it has to be replaced with a frame house.

As this process goes along, of course, it is often represented as good for the community. It is seen as getting rid of "substandard housing," as though this helps the poor people who use such housing. Of course, the real result is those with lower incomes are pushed further and further away from the city and jobs. In other words, they have longer commutes and a lowered standard of living.

This clearly isn't about helping the poor. In fact, when one watches the process, it almost seems that the unspoken goal is to get rid of poor people. It certainly is at least to get get rid of their "ugly" homes.

Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead Township in 1992. At that time, I told people that they would soon hear a call for a law banning mobiles there, in the name of public safety. Within weeks, lawmakers were suggesting this. I'm not sure what eventually happened, but I doubt that they were as concerned about people's safety as they were about the potential value of that land if they could get rid of the poor people and their ugly houses.

After all, the safest homes might have three-foot-thick cement walls, but nobody was calling for that standard. Those in all home types get a lot of warning in any case, and so can avoid being there when hurricanes hit. The reason people lived there in mobile homes was because they are affordable. Once again, if they are banned, the lower income folk have to move further away.

Rental Regulations

Regulating rental housing standards is another idea that is supposedly about helping the poor. After all who wants unsafe living conditions. Look closely at how the process works, though, and you see a different picture. When the Northern Michigan town where I lived years ago instituted a rental code, I went and picked up a copy.

Among the many new regulations was one which specified the required square inches of window space to allow light into each room. Note that this was not about having a usable emergency exit (that was already covered by other laws). Another rule required that there be no peeling paint - without regard to whether the paint was dangerous. Myriad other rules were about all the niceties most people might like in the place they live.

Now, think about this rationally for a moment. Why did people rent the places with peeling paint, small windows and old stoves? Because they could afford them! Naturally, when a landlord is forced to spend thousands upgrading his house with new windows and paint, that cost has to be passed on to the renters. The result? It is another way to make it too expensive for poor people to stay in town. It pushes them out to where the free market still provides affordable housing. It lowers their standard of living.

Remember, if they wanted and could afford the new paint and large windows, they would have rented a place with these features. Such apartments and houses were available. The only thing that such laws do is reduce their options.

When one watches the reality of these legal processes, it truly appears that they're intended to push the poor away. Laws banning mobiles and forcing the upgrading of houses make a town prettier, and increase home values. But one wonders if this attack on "ugliness" isn't in part an an attack on those who are seen as "ugly people." At the very least, it shows that residents are comfortable banishing the poor people and making them even poorer for the sake of a rise in property values.

The free market mostly works, and people will rent nicer places when they can afford them. If you pass laws preventing them from renting "ugly" homes, you make them move away or pay more - either way you make poor people poorer, while the rest get wealthier from the resulting rise in property values.

Read the whole series:
The Redistribution of Wealth to the Wealthy

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Poor People