Dropping an air conditioner on the poor

So, there I am, working on my computer, when I get an instant message from Bryan. “Your blood pressure seems a bit low,” he says. “Maybe this will help.”

So he passes me this story.

He knows me too well. It combines all my hot buttons. Government interference. Check. Oppression of the poor. Check. An obsession about property values. Check.

Great. Now I’ll have to blog about it. So here goes….

A Chicago suburb has just banned visible window-mounted air conditioners.

From the Chicago Tribune:

In an effort to improve Addison’s aesthetics, the Village Board in March passed an ordinance that prohibits window-mounted air conditioners on walls that face the street or on side windows within 12 feet of a street-facing wall.

My bedroom faces the street. Since we don’t have air conditioning upstairs, I’ve placed a window unit in my window to cool down my bedroom. If I lived in Addison, that would make me a criminal.

And for what reason did the village of Addison make this ordinance? Were they pulling a Berkeley and trying to save the environment from leaking coolant? Were they trying to impose some sort of energy efficiency on the citizenry? Not that I’d be pleased with these sorts of reasons.

Oh no. The answer is far worse.

Village officials said the ordinance is geared toward window-mounted units that tend to look shabby, especially when spaces around the units are jammed with cardboard or boards. Also unsightly, they said, are the slap-dash braces made of two-by-fours that support some units on outside walls.

(emphasis mine)

Yep. The government of Addison said that the window units were ugly. Therefore, “ugly” is now illegal. And, tell me, why is “ugly” now illegal in Addison?

[John Berly, assistant village manager said,] “The front yard is what the public sees. The condition of the front is a major factor in determining property values, and it reflects the community norms of acceptable maintenance.”

There it is. Property values. That constant bugaboo.

So, what’s the expected outcome?

[C]ontractors have advised the village that the cost of cutting a hole in a wall and installing a rectangular sleeve and an air conditioner would range from about $600 to about $1,000 depending on the type of wall construction and the complexity of the job.

[A local landlord Vito] Mossa said profit margins in apartment buildings have been trimmed to the bone in recent years because of stable rents but rising costs for heat, taxes, insurance, water and garbage removal. Retrofitting for legal air conditioners would cost too much, he said.

“I would probably just tell [tenants] they can’t put an air conditioner in the window. . . . I’m going to lose tenants,” Mossa said.

(emphasis mine)

Let’s parse this out, shall we?

Who is most likely to be using window-mounted air conditioners? People who can’t afford central air conditioning or aren’t in a position to have it installed. In other words, renters and home-owners who are poor. Also, who is most likely to have “unsightly” improvised home repairs? That’s right; poor people. So, who is this ordinance going to affect the most? (All together now.) Poor people.

But, it’s okay if they leave, right? I mean, do we really want those sorts of people in our neighborhoods? Look what they do to the property values. It’s better for everyone, or at least, it’s better for property owners. And then, our neighborhood will be a better, happier, more prosperous place, right?

But will it?

Vito Mossa doesn’t think so. He thinks that he is going to lose tenants because he can’t afford to install air conditioning the way that the Village Council has demanded. So then what happens? In order to attract tenants, he will have to lower his rent. Assuming he can afford to do this, what quality of tenant do you think he will get? Most folk will want the air conditioning, so he will only get tenants who are too poor to afford the nicer apartments. Of course, the lower rent will mean that Mossa will have even less money to put into maintenance of the apartment building. Plus, the lower quality of tenant will probably attract its own trouble.

But what if Mossa can’t afford to lower his rent? Well then, eventually he will have to go out of business as a landlord. So then, what happens to the apartment building? Mossa will have to sell it, but how will he accomplish that? Eventually he will either have to sell at a loss, or he will have to sell to someone with enough money to pay for all the additional air conditioning updates. Do you think that this buyer will be a nice local landlord? I rather think that it will be a real estate holding company of some kind, who will probably be just another “absentee landlord” that the Village Council is already complaining about.

And what if he can’t sell? Do you think that he will be able to rent apartments in a building that is on the market? Again, only the really desperate would rent in that sort of situation. Or perhaps the building merely stands vacant. But, as I know from personal experience, a vacant building is a drag on a neighborhood, attracting all sorts of trouble.

And what about Mossa? His business is destroyed, and probably his personal finances, too. Where does this leave him?

But, hey, in the end, the village of Addison drives away all those nasty poor people and preserves their property values for good, decent people! Hooray! Another win for the middle class!

Another win against those awful poor folk.

Of course, the really sad thing is that this won’t work. In the end, Addison will probably be left with a worse situation than they started with.

So, I don’t live in Addison, right? I live in Peoria. Why am I so exercised about this?

It’s because I see the same pattern playing out right here in my neighborhood.

Last week, Code Enforcement came through the neighborhood, doing a “clean sweep”. The agent was fairly lenient on us, since she admitted that the purpose was mostly to focus on tenants, not on home owners. That didn’t save my neighbor, who managed to pick up a substantive fine for having front stairs in need of repair. Do the stairs need repair? Yes they do, and my neighbor (who I will call D) knew this. In fact, she had been saving money all year so that she could get them repaired over the summer. They are concrete, so you need to wait until the summer heat for best effect. But now, she has to pay a fine. Where is she going to get that money? That’s right: from the money that she saved to repair her steps.

D is a home owner. In fact, she’s lived in the University East neighborhood for a number of years. On top of that, she is raising her five grandchildren by herself, while working a job in the public school system. She’s not exactly made out of money. And yet, she was being responsible, trying to take care of her property as best as she could. She has covered her stairs, trying to decorate them to make the best of a bad situation. But it did not save her.

And then I hear people in the neighborhood who are happy about this. Indeed, they call Code Enforcement to inform on their neighbors. Then they vigorously defend the right of Code Enforcement to trespass onto other people’s property in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They want the city to keep putting pressure on renters. They want to enforce a certain standard of living on this neighborhood, using the power of the government to accomplish it. And their goal? The preservation of their property values. They want to force this neighborhood to be a nice, upscale neighborhood, without any of those “unsightly” rental properties.

Yay! Another victory for the middle class! Another win against those awful poor folk.

But what have we won, really?

Is this how to accomplish our goal of living together peacefully as neighbors? That is our goal, isn’t it? A neighborhood? But how can we form a loving community if we found it on the suffering of the poor? How can we form a trusting community if we enforce it with anonymous calls to government agencies? How can we form an open community if we are constantly watching each other for infractions?

Are we looking to form a neighborhood? Or are we just looking for a nice place to live, regardless of who pays the price?

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3 responses to “Dropping an air conditioner on the poor

  • Barb

    I’ve experienced personally the downward spiral a neighborhood can take. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garfield_(Pittsburgh)

  • Peoria Pundit » BP Site News: Some Saturday linkage

    […] and Quiet Rook” comments on how the village of Addison is helping residents poor residents by giving them heat stroke. And he notes similar nanny-state behavior here in Peoria. Kudos for an excellent […]

  • Tim

    ‘Ello… came across this post via PeoriaPundit. Quite interesting. I DO agree that window AC units can be very ugly if they are installed wrong. But, to give people a fine because they use window air instead of central air? That’s utterly ridiculous. How about hooking these folks up with some kind of local organization that can help them properly install the AC unit in the window in a more attractive way rather than banning them? Surely that would make more sense and also help the residents feel that their city council cares about them rather than ostracizing them.

    But then again, as our city council proves, city councils don’t give a rat’s patoot – all they want is another excuse to make $ off fines.

    I live in a mixed neighborhood of renters & owners (wife & I are indentured to the bank). There are renters across the street that have a camper van in front of their house that doesn’t move too often. My wife & a neighbor have commented on it, but the folks don’t have a driveway to park it in, so we don’t say anything. And for that matter, all of the neighbors here seem to have a good rapport. The renters around here typically take care of their houses as well as the owners.

    I’m sorry for your neighbor’s plight. If one of your other neighbors ratted her out, maybe they should have discussed the matter with her first. What’s next – code enforcement giving me a fine because some of the brickwork on my front porch needs tuckpointing? Fining me because my roof has rust spots? I appreciate them wanting to make sure houses don’t fall into disrepair, but work with people, not against them.

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