"It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in the great things than in the little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without the other." — Alexis de Tocqueville
"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If `Thou shalt not covet' and `Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free." -- John Adams (A Defense of the American Constitutions, 1787)
In the aftermath of the spate of tornadoes which have ravaged the Deep South comes what seems a sad codicil. One of the pristine little Southern towns to have been devastated by the storms was Cordova, Alabama. It was not enough that the citizens had to suffer death and destruction at the hands of Mother Nature herself, but the city fathers, in a decision a bit like the Sharia call to punish the victim of a rape with stoning, have determined that . . . well, here’s the story.
Some time ago the blue-collar village of Cordova began to get quite a bit above itself. Prosperity does not sit equally well with all of us, and it was apparently not a good fit with Cordova. It seems that the shade of blue of these folks’ collars was a tinge lighter than some others’. In order to promote and preserve a more exclusive community, free of the dreadful gaucheness of poverty and “the lower classes”, the city government (presumably by and of the people of Cordova) enacted ordinances proscribing single-wide mobile homes. Well, everyone knows what kind of people live in THOSE. And that is not the kind of community that the “light-blue” Cordovans wanted.
Older single-wides were grandfathered in, but one wouldn’t expect them to be maintained well enough for THEM to last too long. Came the Act of God. Today, there is no city hall in Cordova, nor many homes left inhabitable. Of course they were all better quality homes the day before, but you know . . .
The “light-blues” have been basically camping - the higher-class ones in pup tents, the riff-raff on the curbs in front of their piles of toothpicks and confetti that used to be their castles. One fine day, an optimistic “light-blue” spies hope on the horizon! A government tractor is hauling in a water-tight, basic FEMA trailer, complete with a kitchen and indoor plumbing and bedding and everything! A single-wide never looked so good! But right behind the trailer were the all-wise city fathers, the guys he’d elected to represent him locally, to make the important decisions for him. And THEY said no. No FEMA trailers for Cordova, Alabama! The very idea! Bringing in these substandard trailers into OUR town. Take ‘em away, boys! And don’t come back until FEMA is ready to meet our terms with at least DOUBLE-WIDES.
I don’t know whether the fellow camping amidst his rubble on the berm was disappointed in his man. I know questions were raised as to why the City offices were being housed in these unacceptable-for-the-homeless FEMA trailers. But, as always, the government had the answers. They needed these trailers “SO THAT THEY COULD CONTINUE TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO THE PEOPLE”. Got that?
If one of the services amounted to a decree that anyone with a single-wide mobile home was no longer welcome in Cordova, Alabama, I think we all got the message. Meanwhile, it will have to be summer camp for the good folks of Cordova.
This should just be a shocking departure from the normal, but I venture to guess that it will not be isolated. These ordinances and city regulations are as oppressive as Stalin’s pogroms to their victims. It’s just that the “important” people, the wealthy, aren’t usually the victims. It is they, in fact, who like ultra-restrictive zoning, tight regulations on distance from the street for construction, lot size, value of the “improvements” permitted in a given neighborhood, what kind of vehicle can be parked in the driveway. In other words, those pernicious little regulations that dictate YOUR life’s minutiae.
My own hometown decided at some point that the older neighborhoods, blue-collar, working-class areas where the less wealthy citizens could still hope to live in single family homes, and in some cases, even afford to own them, were “detrimental” to the overall “community”. The City Council found a way to hack away at these modest neighborhoods, with the end in mind of eliminating them altogether. They enacted regulations which required that no building permits would be issued for maintenance and repair of homes on 25-foot lots in excess value of a certain percentage of the “taxable” value of the home in question. (Not to be applied, of course, to new, pricey “town homes”.) Initially, the assessor would find ways to give the owners “tax breaks”. This appeared at first blush to nearly all of them as a boon. Well, wouldn’t you welcome a property tax decrease? But it would be well to beware. The lower the city’s valuation of your property, the greater the chance that you would be unable to maintain or repair it. Because no contractor would dare proceed, save by the City Inspector!
TREASURE ISLAND - COINS AND PRECIOUS METALS
I remember a case here and there of a lone widow or poor working man attempting to reason with the City in Council Chambers. It was all to no avail, of course, because these were the very people the City wanted to weed out. They weren’t “upscale” enough. I remember one elderly woman who simply asked, in view of the fact that her roof leaked, “Well, what am I supposed to do? What do you want me to do?” Obviously, get a bigger tub to hold the dripping until the house came down around her. Never mind that she was retired, widowed and had hoped to live her life out in the home she and her husband had paid for long ago.
At one time, my husband and I wanted to purchase a nice little three-bedroom home whose lot joined our own. We obtained estimates for installation of a new furnace, improved electrical service, new roof, interior repair and decorating. Our own object was to provide an income property for ourselves that was good enough to attract a good tenant that WE would want as a neighbor by bringing the home up to city codes and making rent reasonable at the same time. Win-win. We approached each councilman individually and provided our business plan (the city had acquired this property through tax default). Our financing was entirely private. Our prospective tenant would not have fit City’s profile, presumably, of the ideal resident. It would not have mattered what we proposed, this house was going to be demolished, only to leave a gaping hole on the street and providing just the place for school children to hang out and smoke, out of sight of whatever authorities there might have been who would have cared.
Needless to say, they found an excuse. It happened that the lot front was 50 feet wide, therefore meeting the city regulation for “improvement” or maintenance and repair of the house. The “problem” was that it did not have “sufficient back yard for children to play”. Never mind that it had room for a little flower garden and a bird bath, or that it had a front porch and shade trees, that it would have provided four walls to just one tenant. Or that it was one block from the local elementary school and playground and four blocks from a city park. Or that it was next to the bus route. Although we pointed out that the warrens that the poor were shoved into at one end of town (out of view of the more successful residents) had NO yards whatsoever, that the children had to play in the linoleum hallways, encountering whomever or whatever else was there, savory or un-, or that the residents of these tenements would never be owners of their homes there, it was all “irrelevant” to the City. Case closed.
It has always been my own contention that individual home ownership is the healthiest of all residence in a community. It ensures the largest number of people who feel they have a stake in the community, it encourages good maintenance and pride in the town and in the home. It encourages parent participation in the education of their children, it empowers them to conduct the government of their own city. And that is undoubtedly why city government likes to discourage it. Make no mistake: the dream of ownership is anathema to big government at every level, whether it be a home or a car or a business.
In a story out of New Jersey, we hear that another group of beleaguered home owners is being beset by the hounds of city government. It seems that there the city has decided that they can afford to do without the “lower classes” that inhabit a neighborhood of row houses. So, through eminent domain, they gave permission to a private developer to twist the arms of the owners and extort them to sell out, Oil-Can Harry-style, offering them cents on the dollar for homes in which they took pride and in which they wished to raise their families and upon which they hoped to build their future prosperity. They were given “take it or leave it” half-price offers which would never fly in the marketplace. Those who took the deal are gone and so are their houses. In that they were row houses with party walls this drastically lowers the integrity and value of the adjacent homes. Even the sidewalks are gone.
Is this the way America allows its citizens to be treated? It was good enough for Kelo, in Connecticut. It appears to be in New Jersey, as well, sadly. In a shocking and revealing statement, the city’s spokesman explained that the city “believes it to be in the best interest of the community as a whole”. The unmitigated arrogance is palpable. It is superfluous to assert just how dangerous is this mindset to American freedom and of course, to the entire concept of “ownership”.
In Florida and North Dakota, among other states, strong resistance to this abuse resulted in effective constitutional amendments banning the application of the doctrine of eminent domain to anything but completely necessary public projects. Other states have attempted to address this through legislation. This was the case in Mississippi. Responding to public demand, the state legislature sent a bill to Governor Haley Barbour, who peremptorily vetoed it. His reason? It would make it harder to pander to industry. We all want industry and economic growth. But not at the expense of robbing individuals of their property. That is unconscionable – not to mention very short-sighted. Who will want to invest here or start a business where city hall can order the property stolen?
There are various pretexts for wresting property from those who have bought, paid tax on and own it. There is “economic growth”, unrealized “public’” projects and, of course, that old stand-by, “urban blight”, which is whatever suits the convenience of the nobles at city hall to call it. The first and last of these, and by implication, the second, are or seem to be, a sort of manifestation of some latent “aristocracy” syndrome. James Kunstler, in The Geography of Nowhere explores the effects of local government regulation and control in shaping our social climate for good or ill and forging its history. Kunstler should be required reading for anyone interested in or involved in property ownership or in government in America..
The “judgment” some were expecting on May 21 may come to different people at different times. I do not profess to know what that is or when it may occur. I hear what I hear. But it almost seems that at least a little nudge was felt in Cordova, Alabama. I wonder if the citizens recognized it. They are now required by their own city government to share the fate of those who would have lived quietly and humbly in single-wide mobile homes but weren’t allowed - hoist by their own petard, as it were. It awaits to be seen what the good folks in New Jersey will do. Some of them are clinging to their properties more or less as a legacy of defiance of the government’s power to confiscate what rightfully belongs to them, on principle. They are worthy of our deepest respect. These people are not expecting to make a killing on this. They expect to lose for every day they hold out, but they do recognize a principle when they see it and they do have the right sort of attitude about what is best “for the community as a whole”. And that is the freedom to enjoy ownership of our own property, as God and John Adams intended.
Sally Morris is a member of Americans for Constitutional Government and the Executive Committee of the Valley Tea Party Conservative Coalition.