Code Enforcement- the Slappin’ Hand of Gentrification
“This used to be the United States,” Soffee said. “It wasn’t against the law to be poor.” – RTD 6/29/14 pg A6
Over several months I have heard from a friend who lives in a local trailer park, and a friend who’s relative manages said trailer park, about the plight they are going through dealing with the City of Richmond’s Code Enforcement Officers. The strong armed campaign to force compliance with building codes to Rudd’s Trailer Park on Southside made the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch today, opening the issue up to larger dialogue. If you have not yet read the article in the Sunday June 29, 2014 paper please take a few minutes to check it out.
The long and the short of it is, Code Enforcement has decided to focus on the 9 trailer parks remaining in the City of Richmond. To understand the whole reason behind what they are doing, and why what they are doing is problematic, we need to first understand some basic ideas about code enforcement. We also need to understand the context of targeting people who are low income, who may not have English as their first language, and who’s culture is different than the WASP mentality from which much of our local government stems. Additionally, we are – I repeat again and again – talking about a City with a 27% poverty rate, and where 40% of our youth live in poverty. Everything is about context.
Code Enforcement is not a neutral tool, and it is not an inevitable force. In fact, the way in which the City of Richmond (and many other places) uses code enforcement, especially via the CAPS program, reeks of selective enforcement. Selective enforcement being where laws are used at the whim of officials and not uniformly applied to everyone in a fair manner. One example of selective enforcement by CAPS was when several years ago they issued me a citation for my rotten soffets. I acknowledged my rotten soffets, and explained my plan to eventually get a loan to do roof and soffet repairs. But I asked the guy if he was issuing everyone in the neighborhood a citation – almost all of the homes feature rotten soffets. He said he was not, I accused him of selective enforcement, and he dropped the citation. Selective Enforcement is one of the major problems with how CAPS functions generally, and how this new attack on trailer parks specifically just stinks.
CAPS stands for Community Assisted Public Safety, and is a combination of Code Enforcement officers, Cops, and community members who snitch on their neighbors. Officially this involves five departments – Planning and Developement Review, Police, Fire, Finance, and the Virginia Department of Health. What it means on the ground is that they have meetings, like the MPACT ones, where citizens are able to make complaints. Then a code enforcement officer, often escorted by a cop (at least when they come to my house), shows up at the property to look at whatever the complaint was about, and to try to develop a laundry list of other violations.
If you haven’t read up on CAPS I suggest you take a look yourself, to see some of what is behind their attempts at “compliance”.
First off, the word compliance just leaves me with an icky feeling. Ugh -authoritarian much? Secondly, the way that CAPS functions gives NIMBY (not in my backyard) types, gentrifiers, and developers a platform through which they can try to impose their value systems on their neighbors. CAPS facilitates the prioritization of money over community, and the perpetuation of petty grudges and disagreements which then become backed by the power of the state. Concrete example of value systems conflicting- once a Code Enforcement officer came to my house, and I suspect knowing I wasn’t home, spray painted over the word “fuck” which was painted on my back fence which we use as a public graffiti wall. When I called him, irate, he explained he assumed it was not supposed to be there. I had to emphasize that, yes, I really did intend for the word Fuck to be on my fence and I did not appreciate his vandalism of my property.
At the Wingnut Anarchist Collective we have probably had CAPS called on us at least 6 times over the past 5 years. Primarily it seems to be the result of the police or yuppie neighbors who are mad about something we are doing (like our giant anti-cop mural), which happens to be legal, but so get code enforcement to come around to seek out anything that doesn’t meet code they can possibly spot. Generally code enforcement officers and cops are greeted by video cameras and curse words, cause we don’t want to encourage their return. We are privileged enough and have been educated on our rights and the local laws and codes enough that often we have been able to successfully argue back against bogus citations. Not everyone is in a position to do so.
You might also be tempted to think that every violation that Code Enforcement cites someone for is valid, but oh my you would be incorrect. I’ve had citations for ordinances which didn’t actually define any of the relevant terms, and for ordinances that the code enforcement officer didn’t actually seem to know what they meant. I’ve known people who received violations for things like peeling paint, having recently repainted their property, only to eventually discover that the code enforcement officer found one house on the block with peeling paint, and simply went ahead and issued everyone on the block the same citation. Another friend was working through the code enforcement process recently over a non-functioning car, only to end up having code enforcement come and tow the car days after he brought the vehicle into compliance with tags etc. When you hear that code enforcement issued however many citations, take it with a handful of salt, and a critical eye. And hope that the folks who have the citations against them have the ability to push back against the irrational bureaucracy, read between the lines, and know enough to never trust a government official.
Assumingly the motivation behind CAPS comes from this tired old Broken Window Theory that law enforcement have been flapping their gums about since the late 70’s and early 80’s. Theory goes, that vandalism and ‘disorder’ in an urban environment spawn or contribute to further criminal activity. Primarily this theory has resulted in police working towards covering graffiti, enforcing building codes, and other petty visual issues in communities.
The broken window theory has also notably been the motivator behind such other authoritarian approaches like NYPD’s notorious stop and frisk program. Having witnessed the RPD engaging in similar stop and frisk harassment of primarily young men of color, it seems as though RPD has bought into broken window theory hook, line, and sinker.
One of the major problems I have with the broken window theory isn’t even that it is necessarily incorrect. Perhaps it is correct, and fixing up the physical environment somewhere convinces criminals to leave that area. But there’s the major problem I do have- also known as the bubble effect. Criminals maybe leave one area, but by failing to address the root cause of criminal behavior, you are simply perpetually moving the criminal activity around but never actually solving it. Crime isn’t solved because someone get’s their windows repaired (which I will repair for money by the way, holler), crime is ‘solved’ because there are jobs with dignity available, counseling, recovery programs, a well adjusted society, educational opportunities, access to healthy food, transportation, etc. The same thing goes for poverty or homelessness. Every single effort to move the poor around (cough privatizing Monroe Park cough), including the economics of gentrification and property taxes, does not end poverty. Mayor Jones might be content to do his best to relocate poor people outside of the Richmond City boundaries, but those efforts will not produce a successful and happy society nor an end to poverty or crime. We have to think regionally, and we have to work towards a more just society. Not one where we have forced the poor into the suburbs because of the reverse white flight tendencies of liberals.
Gentrification is the process through which low income people are forced out of one area due to increases in property tax and rent. In 2006, according to the RTD, Rudd’s Trailer Park was assessed at $908,000 – now in 2014 it is assessed at almost $2.5 million. That means an increase in property taxes annually – going from $10,896 in 2006 to $30,000 now (1.2% property tax rate). While the trailer park is different than single family homes the pricnciple is still the same. The landlord has to pay higher taxes, and no doubt that cost is reflected in increased rental rates for all tenants. Leaving tenants with less extra cash to take care of things like maintenance and repairs.
I propose that the City of Richmond work to slow down gentrification through several related policy changes. We should put a moratorium on zoning changes, a moratorium on increases in property assessments for single family dwellings, and start demanding through a combination of legal and PR means that any “non-profit” organization which pays any employee over $150,000 a year including bonuses, benefits, and petty cash have to start paying property tax on all of their holdings within City limits. This makes sense to me, given the million dollar paycheck VCU pays it’s basketball coach and the over $200,000 Venture Richmond’s head Jack Berry hauls in – just as 2 examples of what “non-profits” are doing with their money instead of pitching in to the property tax fund to benefit our local schools and other public resources.
City Building Inspector Mark Bridgman was quoted in Sunday’s paper stating that any people kicked out of their house through a condemnation would be given the information of the Department of Social Services offices on Southside. As if that guaranteed housing, as if that solved their problems, or was any kind of balm to the wound of displacement. As if that was sufficient in any way, or in any way guaranteed that these folks would not end up living in another below building code dwelling. Come the fuck on. Once the City’s Code Enforcement officers stick that orange Condemned sticker on a property, it is illegal for anyone, including the owner, to be staying there. The orange stickers then give cops the go ahead to patrol the buildings to make sure that no one take shelter in the dwelling.
Where we live is about a lot more than the building we live in. People live in communities, and it is through those communities that relationships and support structures are fostered and nurtured. Getting the address for DSS is a joke. The value of community is why organizations such as RePHRAME exist to try to protect residents of Public Housing from displacement as well. If we value the well being of people, then we have to value their relationships as well. You are not looking out for someone’s well being if all you do is insist they live in a house of particular building code standards. We need to be broader minded than that. Safety, sustainability, and community need to go together.
I am not arguing that anyone should live in unsafe structures. I am not for unhealthy conditions. But code enforcement, the way Richmond is implementing it, does not ultimately stop that from happening. It is a strong armed approach, which results in dislocation of primarily low income people, the trauma of the disruption of community and support networks, and gentrification.
Targeting some of the most impoverished neighborhoods is just code enforcement going for the low hanging fruit. Yes, folks need the larger society’s help. No, that does not look a damn thing like code enforcement coming in to intimidate and strike fear into people’s hearts. Soffee, the manager of Rudd’s trailer park gets it right when he said that “instead of ‘putting people out,’ the city should be focusing on how it can help them fix the mobile homes” (RTD 6/29/14 A6).
When folks can not afford to bring their homes up to code, we should help them. Whether that be via non-profits, government grants, or just community efforts. We should also take a holistic approach. Why perhaps have folks ended up where they are? We can work as a City to make sure we have public side walks, affordable and effective public transportation, healthy affordable food, educational classes etc. available in those areas. Folks who can’t get to decent jobs, or stay healthy enough to work consistently, aren’t going to have an easy time affording home repairs.
Unfortunately, this recent push to enforce the cleanup of local trailer parks is par for the course of bad policy by the City of Richmond. Instead of looking to the roots of the problem, instead of offering positive and productive community oriented solutions, the government does everything it can to criminalize and invisibilize poverty.
These efforts to make poverty go away won’t be successful, but they will cause a lot of pain and suffering, and cost the tax payers a lot of money in the mean time. Capitalism and the State do not hold the answers to our problems, and we need to seek community oriented solutions to local issues. While at the same time we hold the state back, and stand up against unjust enforcement and unjust laws.
If you want to “like” Rudd’s Trailer Park and start or join in on a conversation about how we can help folks in Richmond’s trailer parks you can check them out online – Rudd’s Trailer Park.