I have been living in a rented house since the storm. Unlike some whose houses were totalled, we could have repaired things and been home toasting our tootsies by our own fireplace by now. What happened? Two things: zoning (as in “Twilight Zone”) and FEMA.
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?
There were other surprises. 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.”
Our doctor had a training course at UCLA about the new, top-down, regime for record-keeping and so much more. He said the instructors were constantly surprised and puzzled by the questions they got. “Interesting question, we’ll have to look into that.” And there are a few other problems too.
Part of what makes this time in our nation so very strange is that half the population seems to be stuck in a fantasy world where government functions well, the big problems are things like catastrophic global warming, and so forth. Trying to centrally micromanage things for 300 million people spread over 3 million square miles in a swiftly changing technology environment is such a dumb idea that it’s appalling that more than 10% of the people could believe it (you know, the ones who think that Elvis will answer your letter). Maybe those 1950′s movies were right.