Buy Low, Rent High

 

“Only one in four households that is income-eligible for federal housing assistance receives any. The annual cost to taxpayers of the federal income tax deductions for home mortgage interest and property taxes, which mainly benefit relatively affluent households, is double what the government spends on all lower-income housing programs combined.”
Stockton Williams, executive director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Urban Land Institute.

On February 28, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed into law a statewide rent control bill, the first of its kind in the nation. The provisions of the bill put a cap on yearly rent price increases at a percentage above inflation, and do not apply to all rental units. Tenants’ rights groups believe the bill is better than nothing and puts an end to price gouging in a tight housing market, and they will continue to push for a more comprehensive bill in the future.


The Condition of Laboring Man at Pullman 1894
Political cartoon from the Chicago Labor newspaper from July 7, 1894, showing the condition of the laboring man at the Pullman Company. The 1894 Pullman Strike was a pivotal event in redressing the imbalance between labor and capital during the first Gilded Age. In the current second Gilded Age, weakened labor unions have had difficulty increasing wages for members, and the ad hoc affiliation Fight for $15 has achieved piecemeal success.

 

Arguments over whether rent control laws really work in favor of tenants go back and forth between the usual advocates for the free market on one side and advocates for at least limited government intervention on the other. “Supply and demand” is the linchpin for argument. Points less noted are low wages and income inequality, as in too many people have too little money while the rich continue accumulating more for themselves. And with more money comes more power in equal measure.

Free market arguments ignore how over time the rich, with help from their friends in government, put their thumbs on the scales of capitalism, creating an ever more favorable environment for themselves. To conceal from the lower classes how they are being preyed upon, the rich and their enablers in academia and government concoct formulas such as “a rising tide lifts all boats”, and “trickle down economics”. The Earth is not an infinite place with infinite resources, however, and even if it were, the rich in their greed would still grab for themselves with one hand while swatting the lower orders with the other hand. In their pathology, it’s just as important that others haven’t enough as it is that they have too much.

 

The same Wall Street financiers and speculators who created the housing bubble and consequent financial crisis in 2008 are responsible for skyrocketing rental prices around the country. None of them went to jail or were even indicted and prosecuted, and they were free to take advantage of the mess they had created by using their wealth to buy up property at rock bottom prices, helping themselves to favorable government regulations they themselves had largely written. That is more than just putting a thumb on the scale, it is sitting on it like a fat cat. It’s not unusual for the rich to profit off an economic downturn because they have the money to buy when everyone else needs to sell to have any money at all. This latest example of the rich getting richer has simply been more blatant and egregious than in previous financial crises.


A World War II era sign declaring rent control rules in some localities, a program administered nationwide by the Office for Emergency Management during the war and for several years afterward to prevent price gouging.

Conservative pundits are likely to denigrate rent control laws as socialism, while praising the free market ideal of supply and demand in the housing market for setting rental prices. The problem they choose to ignore, or are possibly even ignorant of, is that the free market ideal has been a dead letter for a long time in America, if it ever actually existed outside of economics text books in the first place. What we have now is a crony capitalist system run by corporate and financial oligarchs who bend government regulations in their favor. They write the rules to benefit themselves. They ran the housing market into the ground, and then scooped up everything at bargain prices and started charging sky high rents. If renters balked at the high prices, it didn’t matter, because they had no other options. Meanwhile, the building industry limped along, maintaining the housing shortage that keeps rents high. Supply and demand economics of, by, and for the fat cats.
— Ed.

 

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Without Due Process of Law

 

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
― from The Federalist Papers, No. 51, by James Madison.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a fan of civil asset forfeiture, and last year he reinstated the federal partnership with state and local authorities that had been ended by the previous Attorney General, Eric Holder. That partnership allows state and local police to share seized assets with federal authorities if they claim even the flimsiest trespass on federal law by the forfeited assets (in a pretzel-like twist of legal reasoning, it is the assets themselves that are accused, not the person or persons who own them). Engaging the federal government in this way allows state and local police to bypass their civil asset forfeiture laws because they are superseded by federal laws, which are often more favorable to the police. The feds then give the state and local cops a kickback of all or part of the proceeds. This is called “equitable sharing” or, more cutely, “federal adoption”.


100 U.S. DOLLARS - MONEY - Free For Commercial Use - FFCU (26742846243)
Getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation while carrying a large amount of cash can lead to a nightmare civil asset forfeiture scenario for the driver, regardless of the legitimacy of his or her claim to the cash. Only the rich can afford to fight city hall in court. Photo by photoo.uk.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

― The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, with the due process clause.


It’s hard to imagine how the law can be more clear than this: ” . . . nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ” To be doubly sure, there is another due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Yet here we are, with police abusing the citizenry by stealing from them, sometimes without even a formal charge filed, but only on mere suspicion of a crime having been committed with the asset or assets, and keeping the proceeds in order to augment their budget. There are slight differences in the law from state to state, but in many states the police are allowed to keep seized assets, which also clearly violates the last clause of the Fifth Amendment, the takings clause. It’s impossible to imagine a more blatant case of conflict of interest, adding insult to the injury of the initial seizure.

 

In a civil asset forfeiture case, the burden of proof is often on the citizen whose assets were seized, not the authorities who took them. In order to retrieve seized assets, a citizen must prove they were not used in the commission of a crime or are a result of criminal activity, and this proof must be forthcoming even when the police have not filed a charge in court. Apparently the only thing to prevent the police from more flagrantly abusing the civil asset forfeiture laws more than they do is the basic decency and good character of the majority of them. But men are not angels, as James Madison wisely observed, and to allow these laws to remain on the books is to invite corruption of the police and further erosion of public trust in government.

WilliamJeffersonFreezerCash20-45L
Cash found in a freezer at the Washington, D.C. home of Congressman William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. This photo was entered as evidence in July 2009 showing what was seized in August 2005 from the freezer of the home of then Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans. Jurors in the trial of Jefferson, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 while under indictment for bribery, saw photos of the infamous frozen cash. It was wrapped in $10,000 increments and concealed in boxes of Pillsbury pie crust and Boca burgers. Photo by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A flagrant case of abuse occurred last year in Jeff Sessions’s home state of Alabama, in the small town of Castleberry in the south central part of the state. To generate revenue for his little town, the mayor hatched a plan for taking advantage of Alabama’s very favorable civil asset forfeiture laws by confiscating cash and property from citizens and visitors alike, but especially out of state visitors, often using entirely invented suspicions. The police chief made no bones about it on public forums, where he joked about how the bogus money grabbing had been a windfall for the town of Castleberry and its nascent police department, now flush with fancy new equipment and patrol cars. Eventually bad publicity caught up with the mayor and police chief of Castleberry, and they were hit with a lawsuit. On a national scale, what happened in Castleberry doesn’t amount to much other than a clear distillation of everything wrong with civil asset forfeiture.

Attorney General Sessions, waving the bloody shirt of the War on Drugs, nevertheless wants to continue civil asset forfeiture and expand it, if he can get away with it. His motivations are unimportant other than how they forecast all the draconian policies he’s likely to see through while he is in charge of the Department of Justice. The important thing is that he has opened up one of the very few issues that attracts a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and that has been for less civil asset forfeiture, not more.

Highway robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, with Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry. Under America’s civil asset forfeiture laws, the gold guineas in Barry’s purse, and the horse he rode in on, could be forfeited to the robbers, or police.
The strange history of this policy of official stealing from the innocent and the guilty alike also matters little, except perhaps to those appellate court judges who fall back on referring to obscure precedents of legal reasoning as convoluted and ultimately irrelevant as the debates of clerics who wondered how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Congress can take this matter away from both Sessions and the judges by enacting legislation rolling it back. Really it should be swept away entirely, along with the War on Drugs it purportedly assists, as failed policies which have corrupted the police and eroded public trust every bit as much and in the same way as Prohibition did in the early decades of the twentieth century, when civil asset forfeiture first became a major police tactic. It seems we never learn lessons once and for all, but have to forever relearn them.
― Ed.

 

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Let the Recipient Beware

 

Online shopping increases as a percentage of overall retail buying year after year, with the current rate a little under ten percent. When people buy items online, they typically have them delivered to their home, and since regular hours for package delivery usually coincide with the hours most people are away at work, that opens an opportunity for package thieves, or “porch pirates”. As could be expected, boom times for online shopping and home delivery of packages has created an accompanying boom in porch piracy, which has victimized as many as 23 million people in the United States.

 

There are technological solutions available to combat the problem, though none are foolproof. One item employs a siren when a package is somehow removed from it, but on further reflection that may not be the best solution since there are a number of ways a package might get knocked off the item without the assistance of a thief, such as an inspection visit by a neighborhood pet. Having a siren going off unnecessarily like that is likely to make a homeowner unpopular in the neighborhood, and similarly to a car owner with an overly sensitive car alarm, that person’s property could be in for an egging.

Milkman 3b04462r
A Milkman makes his rounds in 1925. Did thieves pilfer milk from porches in the old days?

Cameras are a front porch security option, and to be effective the homeowner really does need more than one. Simply having a view of the thief is often not enough information for an eventual arrest; it is more helpful to have a view of the street as well in order to capture an image of the thief’s vehicle make and model, or even the license plate. In any event, it’s always a good idea to make thieves aware that they are under video surveillance, unfortunate as it may seem that innocent visitors are also being watched, in a kinder, gentler version of Big Brother. Little Brother?

 

Third party drop sites are becoming more prevalent in cities. For people in outlying suburbs or the countryside, those sites are generally not an option now because of the poor economics. As online shopping continues to grow, however, that may change to the point where it will not be unusual for people to pick up their packages at some secure location not far from their home, even in lightly populated areas. In a way, such a system would be a return to the days of picking up a package at the local general store. To be a viable option, the pickup location would have to offer more flexibility in services and hours than the local post office.

Parcel Post Truck and Carrier (3113303884)
A United States Postal Service Parcel Post carrier delivering packages in the snow around Christmas, 1950. Photo from the Smithsonian Institution.

Apartment dwellers have few options for secure delivery of packages to their door because of limited space, but since almost all apartments are in town, they have better access to third party pickup sites, or even the building of the package delivery service. A delivery option that has been in the news lately involves giving the delivery service access to the recipient’s house or apartment. That appears to open a can of worms, and it would be surprising if the nightmare of liability pitfalls were ever worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.

 

A better idea that goes halfway is for the package recipient to install a lock box outside the home, sharing the pass code with the delivery service. For apartment dwellers, a lock box would probably have to be no bigger than breadbox. Homeowners could have a box as large as practicable for them, or could even use a shed, though again for liability reasons it would be a good idea not to store anything else in the shed.

Milk home delivery truck
A milk delivery truck in Auburn, Washington in 2017. More uncommon these days than 60 or 70 years ago, home delivery of milk is nevertheless increasing, gaining in popularity along with other home deliveries. Photo by Ron Clausen.

Ultimately in order to put the skids on the current halcyon days for porch pirates, the onus for package security once delivered is going to fall to the recipient. Online shopping is only going to continue growing, and the consequent increase in home delivery will continue to present growing opportunities for thieves. Up until now, online stores and package delivery services have been accommodating toward customers who have reported stolen packages, offering replacements or refunds. That is likely to change if the trend in porch piracy continues upward unchecked, increasingly eating into firms’ bottom lines. The firms involved in online selling and the delivery of those goods have a vested interest in developing better safeguards than what is currently the widespread practice of relying on watchful neighbors. That was the old days, if it ever really was. More likely the problem now is nobody’s around during the day but the thieves, who are tempted by more and more easy pickings showing up on porches.
― Techly

 

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