15 Jan 2013

Roger Kimball Meets the Progressive Housing Regime


Roger Kimball lives in one of the Fairfield County, Connecticut towns bordering Long Island Sound, and his neighborhood was hit by Sandy. He has to repair his home, and consequently ran into the nightmare regime of building codes and zoning regulation that prevails everywhere in developed portions of America.

Our first exposure to the town zoning authorities came a couple of weeks after Sandy. We’d met with insurance adjusters, contractors and “remediation experts.” We’d had about a foot of Long Island Sound sloshing around the ground floor of our house in Connecticut, and everyone had the same advice: Rip up the floors and subfloors, and tear out anything—wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, kitchen cabinets, bookcases—touched by salt water. All of it had to go, and pronto, too, lest mold set in.

Yet it wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”

Of course.

Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.

Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?

Read the whole thing.

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I blogged about a second-hand horror experience with building codes back in 2011:

One day, while I was still living on the SF peninsula in San Carlos, I went outside to get something from my car, and the pretty Oriental young lady who lived in the house across the street (whose name I did not even know, we had only been on waving-hello terms) ran crying into my arms.

She and her husband, a silver-haired, distinguée executive-type who drove an S-class Mercedes, had purchased the typical run-down 1960s-era California spec house across the street from our rental for something north of a cool million. They then proceeded to gut snd completely rebuild the place. Construction activity had been going for about two years, and seemed finally to be nearing completion. I thought these neighbors seemed likely to be about to take up residence just about the same time I was scheduled to depart.

My neighbor began sobbing out her story. A building inspector from the city of San Carlos had just left. He had disapproved of the nails used to attach the wire-mesh to the outside of the house which had already been covered with stucco cement and painted. Because the city didn’t like the contractor’s choice of nail, my neighbors were going to have to give up plans to move in. They would be obliged to tear off the entire new exterior surface of their house, and re-attach new wire mesh and stucco, and paint the whole thing all over again. It would take months to do the demolition and exterior covering again, and it would cost a lot of money.

Beyond the many tens of thousands of dollars all that extra construction was going to cost, they’d have to do an additional move (their lease was up) and pay thousands of unnecessary dollars a month for another rental house. My neighbors had been hit with six figures in extra expenses by the local building code enforcement system over a nail.

No wonder the poor girl was sobbing. She probably felt a lot like Richard III.

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In all the suburban enclaves of the community of fashion, layers of officials have erected regulatory empires funded by the tax dollars of the generally oblivious ordinary citizen. No rational person would buy a home burdened with exorbitant levels of taxation which he can only actually use with the grudging permission of hostile and tyrannical officialdom, but one always discovers the character of one’s place of residence too late.

Really, the best choice is the complete reverse of what most people desire. Instead of living in the most toney neighborhood, surrounded by affluent neighbors with prestigious careers and elite educations, you want to live in a rural township: the kind of place lacking in prestige, fashionability, and good restaurants, where your neighbors are all rednecks and poor. That kind of township will have next to no government, taxes will be extremely low, your neighbors will be friendly, and you can hire labor at cheap rates.

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