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The knock on the door

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They are coming. You can hear them faintly now, the steady, relentless, intractable trudge of boots in the dark streets of America. The army of the night. And they are coming for you.

This is serious, and if you live in Raleigh and you rent, I urge you to read this.

A month or so ago, I wrote a humorous column about having to marry my male roommate and adopt the others in order to skirt a proposed Raleigh city ordinance, that, if passed, would limit unrelated roommates to two per lease.

Well, I've learned a bit more about these roommate ordinances--and it is not funny anymore.

I applied standard research practices to the subject of what are called "exclusionary zoning" cases, arising from the landmark Village of Belle Terre et al. v. Boraas et al. 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case, and the initial findings ... well, I don't know whether to be scared, angry or just bust out laughing.

In Belle Terre, the court found for the defendant, a tony bump on Long Island. Amid the quiet calm, some college kids overloaded a house and ran afoul of Belle Terre's cap of two unrelated roommates--upsetting the well-heeled property owners. The court upheld the ordinance and that was that.

In the spirit of the "new Federalism," the Supreme Court recused itself from further zoning cases after Belle Terre, leaving zoning a local and state issue.

Well-organized groups across the country began using this legal decision to begin to define "family" and to pass and enforce two unrelated roommate city ordinances. Katia Brener in the New York University Review of Law, May 1999, describes with searing detail those with more dictating to those with less.

"By zoning districts for single-family use and defining 'family' narrowly, localities began to zone for direct 'social control' (my quotes), allowing communities to exclude groups of people deemed undesirable as neighbors ... and because historically America's poor have been disproportionately ethnic minorities, these ordinances tend to perpetuate class and racial segregation."

John Faley, head of sociology at Southern Illinois University, had this to say:

"It sounds like they're trying to keep out lower income people ... this is a case of keep the renters out and send them somewhere else."

How's about them apples? All those tolerant Americans stamping their feet about "property values," got their Lott-ie-dottie hanging out, seems. Money v. Humanity.

And the only recourse are state courts, where these cases are beginning to grind through slowly with predictably mixed results.

Locally, I've seen Raleigh cranking the ratchet wheel down on the poor for years now.

First there was the fencing-off of the labor pick-up by the train station down on Cabarrus Street, so the few people who ride trains wouldn't have their delicate sensibilities damaged by the sight of the poor seeking day-work.

Then the City Council passed the panhandling ordinance, wherein crazy, old Johnny Miller, in a master-stroke of delicious irony, had to give the city fiddy dollars to obtain a license for the privilege to beg ("that's Miller, John Miller, 001").

"They" then ramped up this solicitation ordinance to expose to arrest (using pickup trucks and upheld fingers as bait) people previously run off from the old labor pick-up for standing on the corner trying to get the type of labor generally associated with those who often lack some niceties of "regular" people--you know--phones, addresses an' stuff.

The city began sweeps of the model train-set streets of our fair city, casting literally to the forests and ditches the despised results of a failed America that spends barely a sou on its citizens, yet manages to blow almost half of federal discretionary income on defense.

And now that most of "them" are gone, this crap.

See, the two cap is bad enough (and in all fairness, avoided via so-called "non-conforming use" where the landlord gets another mound of papers to renew every year), but there is more. And it gets worse. Much, much worse.

Imagine for a moment you are lying abed at 3 a.m. when you hear voices inside the house. "What is this?" you say, putting on your nightie and, half-asleep, snicking the safety off your scatter-gun. Peeking round the corner, trembling trigger finger at ready, you spy, admiring the Monet print on the wall, two men, one a Raleigh police officer. You quietly lower the gun, click the safety on and lean the 'ol Mossberg up against the door frame. (Or not. There being all kinds of edgy folks who could easily end up blowing a hapless city inspector or a well-intentioned cop out a door with a load of double ought. Shoot. Don't shoot--It's a flow chart).

"'Scuse me, gents, may I help you?"

The two spin around to address you. "We are inspecting your dwelling. Routine, we assure you. May we see your identification and occupancy papers, sir."

"Occupancy papers? I know not of what you speak, Sir. Y'see, my brother's over in Iraq, whuppin's Saddam's butt for the good 'ol Yew Ess of Ay and I'm lookin' after the house."

"So you are neither the lease holder, roommate nor registered guest?"

"Correct."

"Sir, You are in violation of the law. We have no choice but to write you a citation. The fine is 75 dollars. You have a day to vacate, otherwise there will be subsequent fines. Now, stand aside and let us continue the inspection." Loaded shotgun.

The above scenario has been fictionalized for effect. But all the details have occurred not in Belle Terre, but Belleville, Ill., courtesy of their new roommate-limiting ordinance. During a Belleville inspection raid, Crystal Wilson, 25, was ordered to show the caesarean scar listed on her file.

Think I'm trippin? Well that is exactly what happened.

See, the crypto-Gestapo part of all of this is the "enforcement" part. The City of Raleigh's proposed ordinance, (modeled on the same basic legal formula as in Belleville) discusses the part about requiring landlords to also collect data on tenants: drivers' licenses, vehicle registration, employment, etc. There is also a provision encouraging "neighbors" to maintain diaries of visitors, tag numbers, length of stay and the like. Raleigh's proposal also raises the legality of having neighbors videotape your life. And then, there are the--WHOOP, WHOOP, WHOOP--Unannounced. Random. Inspections.

For those of you smug in the delusion of safety in ownership, guess what? It applies to you, too, although, as Brener noted, the bulk of the hassles fall on the poor. Ed Yohnka of the ACLU calls these "the use of housing codes for what amounts to drug sweeps." See, though drug use is very steady across ethnicity and income, won't be no-knocks in Hayes Barton. The biggest impediment I get from trying to bring people around is, "Oh, it won't pass. It can't." The other one I get is that if it passes, the above wouldn't happen here.

Could it? I don't know. But when you see what Raleigh did with the solicitation law, going from picking on a pest, a sick, old man, to preventing our most recent immigrants from obtaining the only work they can get, it wouldn't surprise me a bit.

As a citizen, my rights and liberty as an American are now under assault for all the wrong reasons. I live a fairly quiet life and I want to be left alone. Now, I am being poked and prodded and hemmed in by those with more than I and I DON'T LIKE IT.

What do you want? A pluralistic, civil democracy composed of a wide variety of people, some you like and some you might not like so much, or a gloomy stratification of society, a knock-in-the-night monoculture tramping on the shreds of the Constitution to enforce some mythical Ozzy and Harriet hallucination of wide, clean yards, the birds twittering in the trees and no icky people. A suburban negative utopia--the velvet prison.

No, sir. I refuse.

The greatest gift that can be given to this sinister, intrusive BS is that of inaction--a failure to challenge because those most threatened are either uninformed or too fractured and disenfranchised to believe they can do anything about it.

This creature needs to be smothered in its crib if only because I've got better things to do than spend the rest of my life in a courtroom.

If any of this has any resonance, makes you mad, scared or whatever, show up at the Avery Upchurch Government Complex (corner of Hargett and Dawson streets downtown) on Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. and let the City Council know that you will not let your rights be trammeled by a few over the misdeeds of a few.

I've set up an e-mail address to collect statements from those concerned about this: Civilcommunity@yahoo.com. EndBlock

Material for this column was obtained partially from the following Web sites as well as Raleigh city files.
www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/belle.html
www.nyu.edu/pages/lawreview/74/2/brener.pdf
www.belleville.com/mld/belleville/news/4691498.htm

Peter Eichenberger can be reached at petrblt@aol.com.

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