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Why There Is a Poor Side of Town

November 17, 2008

I lived on the poorer side of town for many years, in a mobile home manufactured in 1969. By the time I left, there were nice homes being built nearby. By now I imagine it is illegal to put a mobile home anywhere near there, and even existing ones that burn down probably have to be replaced with “regular” houses. That’s the usual pattern in a town, and it’s another way wealth is redistributed from the poor to the wealthy.

As I have said before, I’m not against the rich. I want people to be free to make as much money as they can. But I am against people accumulating wealth dishonestly and at the expense of others. The method I’m about to describe does the latter – it helps people build wealth at the expense of the poor. It can’t necessarily be called dishonest, however, because they really may not know what they’re doing.

As a child I heard more than one adult complain about mobile homes. Specifically, they hated how “ugly” they are, and how they therefore reduced property values. “They shouldn’t be allowed here,” was the general consensus among owners of “regular” homes. Only later, as an adult, did it occur to me that it may be unfair to use the power of law and the implied threat of force that comes with it to decide who can live where and how based solely on the “tastes” of other residents.

In addition to bans on mobile homes, many communities implement “minimum square footage” requirements for homes. This has nothing to do with safety, but is about preventing “ugly” little houses that don’t fit the standards of taste of the wealthier class. A friend of mine was rendered homeless (yes actually forced to move out of his small home and off his own land) by one of these laws.

There are other regulations that “beautify” a community as well. For example, many towns have regulations forbidding non-working cars from being in a person’s driveway for more than two weeks.

In passing such laws and regulations, people don’t necessarily intend to hurt poor residents. They just want to make things “nicer” and help themselves raise their property values. Some may be vaguely aware that removing affordable housing effectively transfers wealth from the poor to the “nice” home owners, but that isn’t their intent.

Nonetheless, it is the effect, and it is accomplished not through honest agreement, but through the use of force (or the threat), that comes with law. If smaller or otherwise cheaper homes are not allowed, what happens? Well, the working poor can simply rent more expensive places or buy more expensive homes, thus becoming poorer in the process.

They can move to the “poor side of town,” but of course that gets further and further away as regulations increase. Or they move out of town altogether, to live where more affordable housing is. In either of these last two cases, they then have long commutes to their jobs, taking money out of their pockets and so impoverishing them more. The middle class home owners meanwhile get wealthier with the rising property values that result once the “uglies” have been removed.

Even such things as a not allowing a car in the driveway if it doesn’t run, though well intended (we all like nicer neighborhoods) hurt the poor. People on lower incomes often have to wait to repair a car. Again, there may be no intent to hurt the poor, but this effectively enriches the richer residents and impoverishes the poorer ones.

I’m not saying that we cannot have nice neighborhoods, but how we get them makes all the difference. To my knowledge developers are free in every state in the nation to make rules for any new neighborhoods they create. This is why we have wealthy suburbs surrounding many towns, where houses have to be a certain size, and fifty other rules protect home values. Everyone knows the rules when they buy, and this is all done honestly and voluntarily by all parties involved.

Choosing to use the force of law on existing communities is another matter entirely. It is based on the assumption that if enough of us want something we have the right to impose our will on others. This may not be recognized as a mob mentality, but it is. Once the mob is relatively wealthy, they impose their will on the poor by force, rather than honestly paying for what they want – as they do in the case of planned subdivisions.

Remember, we’re not talking about regulations for safety or public health. This is about some people forcing their aesthetic and economic preferences on everyone, without regard for the cost to the poor. Certainly those with lower incomes can do this too, by voting for those politicians who then take from the wealthy to give to the poor. But the truth is that a lot of power comes with money, so the poor will always have a disadvantage if that is how “the game” is played.

Now, I would prefer that there is no such “game,” and that we all rely on honest business more than on the force of law to get what we want. I also think there is a real danger when we allow those who have more to take advantage of those who have less. When this happens in what people think is a “capitalist system” (it isn’t), they will turn to more socialist economic and political ideas, which in the end do even more harm.

Note: This is part of a series. You can find all of the pages listed and linked to here:

The Redistribution of Wealth to the Wealthy

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Poor Side of Town