A sonnet for a catfish

February 08, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- Baltimore officials are shocked, shocked to discover that some of the city employees responsible for municipal housing inspections are themselves slumlords, owners of rental properties that don't measure up to the housing code.

Nobody else is surprised at this news. It's assumed by most real-world people, whether they live in the city or outside it, that the Baltimore government is a swamp of ineptitude and petty corruption, and that its programs concerned with housing are probably the worst of all. New disclosures confirming this assumption are usually met with either a yawn or a sigh.

City politicians can't afford that response, however. They believe they have to do something. So now, what with the current housing commissioner up for a reconfirmation hearing before the Baltimore City Council next week, there's a chorus of cries for tougher standards, tighter controls, increased penalties, closer inspection of the inspectors and so forth and so on.

None of this will work. The real-world people know it, the politicians know it and the poor people forced to live in squalid Baltimore houses and apartments know it best of all. Everyone involved understands that it's all for show, and that whatever is done, whether by a new housing bureaucrat or an old one, the city's housing will continue to deteriorate and those who can afford to move elsewhere will continue to flee.

As is the case with most policy disasters, a solution is available. It's reasonably simple, and it could be implemented in a way that wouldn't be expensive. Tenants and most but not all landlords would benefit immediately. Soon the city tax base would benefit too, as its demographic profile and long-term economic prospects improve.

Herewith a modest proposal. All the city has to do is give up its quixotic efforts to make privately owned housing, whether rental or owner-occupied, meet unenforceable and often unrealistic standards. It needs to deregulate housing, in other words.

The city needs to abandon all but the most basic restrictions on the rights of residential-property owners. These people as a class represent its last hope for survival as a healthy community, but the muncipal government still views them either as enemies or as prey.

It should make owning residential property in Baltimore a sensible investment for ordinary people, which is certainly not the case today. To that end it should stop requiring permits for most home improvements. It should make most inspections voluntary, except perhaps for basic plumbing and electrical connections when a new house is completed or when an old one changes hands.

Fee for service

Inspections could be privatized and most of the housing bureaucracy eliminated. But if the city wants to keep its army of inspectors on the job, at least when they're not working clandestinely on their own properties, it could make their services available for a fee to those who request them.

There would probably be plenty of requests. The results of such inspections might be used in adjudicating landlord-tenant disputes, or to certify the condition of for-sale or for-rent properties. And because a city inspection certificate would tend to make a property more valuable, inspectors would still have to be held to clear standards.

If the city wants to continue assisting poor tenants with their rent money, which up to a point is a perfectly reasonable policy, it would find that eliminating most inspections would increase the available housing stock -- and not just at the bottom. It would mean more competition for tenants and downward pressure on rents.

So-called Section 8 rental-housing assistance is currently given either as certificates or vouchers. If the former, the federal

government (!) decides whether the rent is fair, and requires inspection of the rental unit. With vouchers, in contrast, tenants can seek housing anywhere, and are allowed to judge for themselves whether the rent is fair.

Naturally, the Section 8 program emphasizes certificates, with all their bureaucratic baggage. If instead it provided vouchers exclusively, it could actually help bring about a free housing market in Baltimore and all the benefits that this would produce. That would be a local-federal partnership that made sense.

A dramatic reform of this sort could reverse the decline of Baltimore housing in a matter of months, but even so it won't happen soon. For one thing, Washington will get in the way. And for another, most of those holding elective office in Baltimore got into politics to regulate, not to deregulate. They find the idea of a city without a vast, cumbersome, costly and corrupt housing bureaucracy as unimaginable as a sonnet would be to a catfish.

7)

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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