For a city that can't keep its own house in order, Richmond, Virginia, sure seems eager to make other people straighten up theirs.
Auditor Umesh Dalal has written so many reports on the city's shortcomings they could fill a shipping container. By far the most disturbing concerns the child-welfare arm of the Social Services department. Employees there ignored abusive situations and even tampered with information about some cases before forwarding it to local judges. "Children were left with caregivers even though there was evidence that they were beaten and burned," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported last year. Incredibly, a third of case files simply went missing. What happened to the children in the files? Nobody knows.
But heaven forbid you add a deck to your mobile home without the city's say-so.
The city's office of code enforcement has been handing out violations at Rudd's Trailer Park, off Jeff Davis Highway, like they were Skittles. Many of the residents can't figure out why. As reporter Graham Moomaw put it in a June news story, "people say they're dumbfounded by what they view as a bureaucratic crackdown on an impoverished, largely Hispanic community."
Some of the violation notices address legitimate worries, such as inadequately maintained sewer and electrical systems. Those are safety issues. Nobody wants children—or their parents—getting sick or dying in a fire caused by worn-out wiring.
Other violations—"improperly built decks and porches"—sound like petty bureaucratic nonsense. What's more, the code-enforcement campaign is threatening to leave some residents without a place to rest their heads: Inspectors are condemning trailers, and about 70 residents could be evicted. Concerned by such prospects, advocates for the poor have stepped in. They recently wrote a letter to City Hall asking for a more compassionate approach—one that doesn't throw people out on the street. A run-down mobile home might not be the nicest place to live. But it beats sleeping on a park bench.
Mayor Dwight Jones' administration appears responsive. Yet the inspections at Rudd's are only the first city salvo in a campaign that threatens similar action at every trailer park in the city. And there is "no viable plan for the city to address the displacement of this many people," says Nicole Zingaro, a local church social worker. Ronnie Soffee, who runs Rudd's, is more blunt: "This used to be the United States," he told the newspaper. "It wasn't against the law to be poor."
The city might not stop at trailer parks. Three members of the City Council want to create a rental-inspection program that would single out certain areas—primarily those dominated by student housing—for added scrutiny. Landlords would pay the inspection fees, at least nominally. In practice they probably would pass on the costs to their tenants.
What's more, the inspections would put tenants in an untenable position. Renters have the right to refuse warrantless searches of their domiciles, just like anybody else does. But renters might not feel as comfortable as a homeowner would telling a government official to scram. Supposing a tenant does, though. What then?
When Chesterfield proposed a similar rental-inspection plan five years ago, it threatened property owners with $2,500 fines if inspectors were turned away. Faced with a sharp backlash, the county scratched the plan. That didn't leave tenants helpless before rapacious slumlords, though. Virginia law allows tenants to withhold their rent in an escrow account until a landlord corrects inadequate conditions, from fire hazards to exposed lead paint.
To be fair, local officials are caught in a bind. If they come down hard on code violations, they get accused of targeting the poor or trampling property rights. But if unsafe conditions lead to tragedy, everyone wants to know why they didn't act sooner.
Still, there has to be a sensible middle ground between treating an unauthorized porch as a federal case and letting families die of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Richmond's rental-inspection plan supposedly would forestall "blight." That is a common excuse for government officials to muscle aside people of modest means so they can impose their own grandiose plans.
And the Department of Social Services? Some heads have rolled, and Mayor Jones has installed new personnel at the top—including administration policy analyst and former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks. Yet the department is still in "desperate need" of improvement, a senior official told the City Council earlier this month.
Bottom line: If you're a poor kid living in a Richmond trailer park, the city is Johnny-on-the-spot to protect you from jerry-built porches. And if your live-in uncle likes to get drunk and burn you with cigarette butts? Someone will get back to you on that—maybe.