Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Embedded fragility

Christchurch could have a sister-city in New York. Richard Kimball writes in the Wall Street Journal of his Kafkaesque journey through the regulations that are keeping him from fixing his home, damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Fixing his house requires getting building permits. Getting a building permit requires getting the house up to code, which can involve simultaneously meeting a requirement to elevate the house above flood level while staying beneath a mandated total height limit that may be below the level of the house plus elevation. Kimball misses the obvious solution of lowering all his ceilings by a foot, I suppose.

Other problems?
A woman in our neighborhood has two adjoining properties, with a house and a cottage. She rents the house and lives in the cottage. For 29 years she has paid taxes on both. The cottage was severely damaged but she can't tear it down and rebuild because Zoning says the plots are not zoned for two structures, never mind that for 29 years two property-tax payments were gladly accepted.

Kafka would have liked FEMA, too. We've met plenty of its agents. Every one we've encountered has been polite and oozing with sympathy. Even the lady who reduced my wife to tears was nice. The issue was my wife's proof of income. We sent our tax return to FEMA, but that wasn't good enough. They wanted pay stubs. My wife works as a freelance writer and editor. She doesn't get a pay stub. Which apparently makes her a nonperson to this government agency.

In "The Road to Serfdom," Friedrich Hayek noted that "the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work."
Urban planning regulations can easily embed systemic fragility. In normal times, maybe you could argue that the amenities they provide are worth the cost. I'd disagree, but valuation of those amenities varies. But when something bad happens, whether earthquake or hurricane, the last thing you need are an army of compliance officers ensuring that nobody can build new houses unless things go through years-long subdivision approval processes, nobody can fix their houses until they get sign-off from some Council office whose workload will have gone up by a few orders of magnitude post-disaster, or that nobody can build a downstairs apartment into their house to help ease some of the strong post-disaster housing pressures.*

Kimball could perhaps commiserate over beer with David Haywood.

* As best I can tell, Christchurch Council's only reason for banning this one is that it's banned. Pre-quake, they made it impossible because of worries about disamenity effects on neighbours. And maybe - maybe - you could have made a case for the reg under pre-quake conditions. But it seems ridiculously unlikely that aggregate disamenity effects of this sort would outweigh the benefits provided in a post-quake, housing scarcity world. Rents are up more than 25% over last year. And last year wasn't cheap either. The pre-quake justification for the rule was debatable; I have a hard time seeing it as the basis for Council's continued intransigence. More likely, rich homeowners near the University who have the ear of Council mandarins lobby them for fear that their neighbours build in flats to accommodate more students. If that's all it is, just ban the flats near the University and allow it everywhere else in town. And for freaking shame on those who have engaged in such lobbying at the expense of those on the east side of town in need of housing.

1 comment:

  1. So it's NIMBYism combined with bureaucracy... nightmare!

    [and yes, shame on those people. Not that they care the least bit about what anybody else thinks, of course; they've got theirs...]

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