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Your shantytown is my free trade zone; how to ease homeless crisis

Scrap lumber like this on a construction project on Main Street of Chattanooga would be recycled by homeless people for their own “free trade zone” dwellings. (Photo David Tulis)

A worksite dumpster could become the “home depot” of homeless people if they could build their own dwellings in an unregulated housing free trade zone in Chattanooga. (Photo David Tulis)

A worksite dumpster could become the “home depot” of homeless people if they could build their own dwellings in an unregulated housing free trade zone in Chattanooga. (Photo David Tulis)

Chris Long, right, an architectural consultant, believes Chattanooga is ready for a free trade zone in housing. He is a candidate for mayor. At left is John Anthony, a free market advocate and expert in housing and property rights. (Photo David Tulis)

Chris Long, right, an architectural consultant, believes Chattanooga is ready for a free trade zone in housing. He is a candidate for mayor. At left is John Anthony, a free market advocate and expert in housing and property rights. (Photo David Tulis)

As the mayoral election in Chattanooga gets into gear it is time to ask what city administration can do to help — or to stop hurting — the prospect of the poorest homeless.

The free market answer to those is not an improved program, a subsidy, or concessions from developers to build “affordable housing.”

By David Tulis / Noogaradio AM 1240 FM 101.1

The local economy and free market answer to homelessness is simply getting out of the way and ending the practice of cultural imperialism — of telling people how to live “safely and healthy.”

Three men thus far have put their names out before the people as candidate for mayor. First is the incumbent, Democrat Andy Berke, seeking a second term along the model of the modern security state. Second, Larry Grohn, a council member who has good conservative and Tea Party-connected credentials. Finally, there is a lesser-known figure, Chris Long, an architectural consultant and former builder who says regulation adds at least 25 percent to the cost of even the cheapest house.

But what about people who cannot afford even the scrappiest rental?

We’re talking about homeless people who have no savings, no financial capital, no credit, few personal possessions, little social and cultural capital and often no fixed address at which they can obtain mail, from bank statements to government explanations of benefits. Though the U.S. post office offers general delivery, business and government deal with people at a fixed address. If the homeless can gain a fixed address, they begin the process of belonging and investment in a locale, Mr. Long says in an interview.

Free trade zone in housing

The free-market allows the homeless to invest in the housing market and it proposes the following:

A zone or tract free from any regulatory control in which homeless people can live by their own means, in their own structures, with the prospect of obtaining ownership of small pieces of land upon which they have built.

➤ Such a collection of ramshackle structures, lean-to’s, shacks and basic box structures with roofs, walls, doors and maybe windows could be called a shantytown. That is a word spat upon the ground as an epithet. A shantytown is an embarrassment to your city and your high sensibilities if you are a well-heeled Chattanoogan with a good job, a nice car and a real house. But if you are homeless, a shanty town lets you find and establish yourself in a place to which you eventually belong.

“Shantytown” may embarrass those with college degrees and good incomes. It may seem shameful to someone who has nice locks on his door and a garage with a power door. But if you are poor and live under bridges and spend nights and gospel missions and under close places outside of railyards, having a temporary or semi-permanent structure, a place of your own, may be a bright prospect.

Your shantytown is my free trade zone. It depends on whose perspective controls.

Whence building materials?

A free trade zone in housing is a place where people with little means can establish themselves. If the city agrees to a free-trade zone in housing, it might consider offering basic amenities such as a sewer system, perhaps a small shed with a shower, perhaps electrical outlets at which homeless people can charge their cell phones or from which they can run corded lamps. Or a city might not. It may deregulate, and keep hands off.

The great advantage would be that the poor couple or family could build their own place from lumber and materials cast off from construction sites.

Chattanooga today is at or near the peak of a construction bubble.

All over town are apartment complexes and new stores being built. Much waste volume at local landfills is construction waste. But if we had a program in which the poor people could scavenge the waste pits of contractors and developers, we would have a great deal of supplies available for people to use to make their own hovels.

Churches could pitch in and offer nails, saws, hammers, drills. Donors could give individuals gifts of supplies. Enterprising poor people could add amenities to little buildings, such as night stands and tables.

Permanency

One thing that would encourage homebuilding among the rootless would be the prospect of obtaining ownership. It could be arranged to have a sort of pencil recording system in which a person who lives on a piece of ground in the free-trade zone here, you could obtain legal title to a square of land of a certain size or category. He might be given conditions such as the requirement to live on the site for two or 21/2 years.

Indeed these sites would all be landlocked and there would not be road access to these small squares. But that’s OK, because poor people of the kind we’re talking about generally don’t have cars. The right of way would be by foot from your hovel to the street.

If a poor person has a guarantee that he can own a piece of land and the property on it without interference, he might be willing to stay there. He might be willing to end a nomadic life that had its benefits, but also its many worries.

I call it the shantytown a free-trade zone because that’s what it is. The shantytown is a free-trade zone because people can buy and sell apart from the high-minded safety-minded and “helps” of a regulatory apparatus that today prevents this low end of the housing market.

It’s a free-trade zone because people can act freely without hassles, inspectors, and other pests against a free people.

What about ownership, legal title?

What happens to a shanty that’s abandoned? (Does it matter to anyone?) How does a new person establish the starting date of residency? What happens if there are disputes over plywood, nails or other scraps? What happens about waste piles in a landscape of uneasy hand-made structures? How big does a pile of scrap lumber have to be before the city dump truck or garbage truck comes to haul it? What about taxes or fees when a lot is sold? If an assessor says a shack is worth $200, is there a transfer tax? Or would shanty trades, sales and deals occur in some recording system outside the current city corporation system? If the property assessor comes to evaluate the value of a particular shanty with its block of land and values it at $200, how is the tax collected? Well, simply a bill is sent for $8. What about the claim of ownership and enforceability of ownership?

Without a legal means to enforce property ownership, quality of life and quality of shack will not rise in the district.

The goal of course is not to have these properties on the tax rolls, but to make it easy for people who are on the fringes of city life.

What about garbage disposal? Who would empty the Port-A-Potty? What about showers? What about means by which to wash dishes? What about insulation in the wintertime? Do disputes go to chancery court? What about an argument about a public nuisance? What if contractors started dumping truckloads of construction waste at the corner of the zone and it became a dump? If people could take ownership — after how long? Two years. Three years? What proofs are required to make such a claim?

What about rules that require every lot to have connection to a street? Could a free trade zone obtain exemption, since the denizens are pedestrians only? I suggest the more city government got involved in any positive way, the louder would become disputes over equity, fairness and justice. A hands-off approach might be the best one.

Does a hand-off approach imply that no sheriff or police officer is available to deal with common law crimes such as theft, rape or murder? Policing doesn’t stop crime, but may reduce incidence. If it is code-free and totally open, would the area become vulnerable to gangs and strong people who “take refuge” there? Perhaps, but that dynamic of dangerous neighbors plays out elsewhere where zoning, housing and construction codes are enforced.

Indeed, there are many problems that would have to be solved by the people who live in these arrangements. No doubt some dwellers in a free trade zone might move elsewhere in the zone, or out of the city if they have troublesome neighbors, either within the zone or beyond it.

Opportunity for all if state’s hands kept off

Free trade zones generally create opportunity for those in them. They bring newcomers because they reduce costs and “government overhead” that attaches to many profit-seeking concerns. If it were successful, would a housing free trade zone become a magnet for homeless people in Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville and Birmingham?

A free trade zone is not a dole, so it wouldn’t bring opportunists and grifters to Chattanooga. But it might encourage people who might see in it an opportunity for self-enhancement, dignity and honor — if they are willing to work for their own domiciles, to build them and eventually sell or trade. With a liberated housing sector, we can democratize the homeownership idyl that for the rest of us is made possible by cheap credit, the banking system, employment and fixed addresses. A free trade zone in housing is an example of a democratic generosity, a lassitude of control, a live-and-let-live mentality.

The mayoral race is the good venue in which to have a discussion on the democratic and common-man side of the “affordable housing issue.” Whether one’s politics are Democrat or Republican, or whether one is a political liberal or a conservative, the idea of a free-trade zone for the wretched and wandering poor is exciting.

Because the housing free trade zone is in Chattanooga it really doesn’t matter what your politics are. It graciously esteems the homeless, gives them credit for self-interest and constancy, and lets people find their own level of comfort in their housing arrangements without being patronized or saved from themselves.

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